The Hanshin Tigers are hoping their balanced attack can counter the stellar pitching of the defending champion Orix Buffaloes when the first all-Kansai Japan Series in 59 years kicks off on Saturday, October 28.
In 1964, the last time two teams from Kansai squared off in the Japan Series, the Osaka-based Nankai Hawks, currently the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, defeated the Tigers four games to three.
There is certain to be an electric atmosphere in Kansai and all over Japan for this series.
Hanshin hasn't won a championship title in 38 years and its notoriously rabid fans will make their presence felt both at Koshien Stadium and at Kyocera Dome where the Buffaloes are the home team.
"I think everyone is going to see a passionate Kansai series, one that will excite the entire nation," Orix manager Satoshi Nakajima said, according to Kyodo News.
The Buffaloes defeated the Tokyo Yakult Swallows four games to two in the 2022 Japan Series and have experience on their side.
You have to go all the way back to 1985 for the only time the Tigers won the championship. That was when Randy Bass was the MVP in a four games to two victory over the Seibu Lions.
The Road to the Japan Series
The 2023 Tigers wrapped up the Central League pennant with a comfortable 11½-game lead over second-place Hiroshima. And they quickly dispatched the Carp in the final stage of the Climax Series with a three-game sweep.
"The support we received from the home fans was on a different level from the regular season," Hanshin manager Akinobu Okada told Kyodo News after the win over Hiroshima.
Orix was equally dominant in the Pacific League, finishing 15½ games ahead of the Chiba Lotte Marines, who the Buffaloes defeated in four games in the other second-stage series to book a spot in their third straight Japan Series.
High-Scoring Tigers Rely on Collective Contributions
The Tigers did not have a single starting player bat over .300 in the regular season, but that didn't stop them from scoring a league-high 555 runs.
Okada preached patience at the plate and the Hanshin batters took heed, leading the league in walks with 494.
Chikamoto batted .285, drove in 54 runs and stole 28 bases. Oyama had 19 homers and 78 RBIs while Sato connected for 24 homers and had 92 RBIs.
But it was very much a balanced attack with batters 1 through 9 contributing whether it was rookie Shota Morishita or infielder Seiya Kinami ― they all chipped in.
Can the Tigers carry that balanced approach over when they are up against one of the best pitching staffs in Japanese baseball?
Yamamoto Spearheads Orix's Starting Rotation
The Buffaloes boast Japan's most dominant pitcher in 25-year-old right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto.
Yamamoto was superb in every category this season, going 16-6 with 169 strikeouts and a stellar 1.21 ERA.
He looked unusually shaky in his last outing on October 18 when he gave up five runs on 10 hits over seven innings in an 8-5 win over Lotte in the PL's second-stage series.
But chances are that was a one-off and Yamamoto is sure to be his dominant self once the series kicks off.
"We are a team where everyone can play an important role," Yamamoto was quoted as saying by Nikkan Sports.
In addition to Yamamoto, the Buffaloes also have left-hander Hiroya Miyagi, who was 10-4 with 122 strikeouts and a 2.27 ERA.
Sachiya Yamasaki also had an outstanding season, going 11-5 with 80 strikeouts and a 3.25 ERA.
Middle Relievers Bolster the Buffaloes
One area where Orix excels is its middle relief. Soichiro Yamazaki had 27 holds and nine saves with 60 strikeouts and 2.08 ERA while Yuki Udagawa had 20 holds, two saves, 52 strikeouts and a 1.77 ERA.
It's a huge advantage for Nakajima knowing that he can turn the ball over to his bullpen with that level of talent ready to come in.
To close out a tight game, Nakajima can call on former major leaguer Yoshihisa Hirano, who had 29 saves in the regular season.
Solid Starters Set Tone for Hanshin's Pitching Staff
For Hanshin, left-hander Kotaro Otake, who wracked up 12 wins against only two losses and had 82 strikeouts with a 2.26 ERA, was a bright spot for the pitching staff.
Rookie Shoki Murakami was 10-6 with 137 strikeouts and a 1.75 ERA while Masashi Ito put up similar numbers, going 10-5 with 91 strikeouts and a 2.39 ERA.
For middle relief, Okada often handed the ball to Yuta Iwasada, who notched 24 holds.
Atsuki Yuasa produced eight saves and three holds in 15 mound appearances. To close things out, Okada can turn to veteran Suguru Iwazaki, who had 35 saves and 12 holds in 60 trips to the mound.
Both teams boast impressive, experienced pitching staffs but with the presence of Yamamoto, the edge goes to Orix.
Trying to Fill the Void After Yoshida's Departure
Many Orix fans fretted when Masataka Yoshida left after the 2022 season to play for the Boston Red Sox.
A two-time Pacific League batting champion, Yoshida had batting averages of .350, .339, and .355, with a total of 56 home runs and 224 RBIs in 349 games in the three seasons from 2020 through 2022.
Yoshida hit two home runs in Game 5 of the 2022 Japan Series to power Orix past the Swallows.
You just can't replace a bat like that but several Orix batters did their best to fill the void.
Infielder Yuma Tongu had an outstanding season, leading the PL with a .307 batting average while hitting 16 home runs and driving in 49 runs.
Fan favorite and 2022 Japan Series MVP Yutaro Sugimoto was solid with 16 homers and 41 RBIs in the regular season and has shown a knack for coming up big in clutch situations.
Former major leaguer Marwin Gonzalez came over and, while he struggled to adjust to NPB pitching in his first season here, managed to hit 12 homers with 38 RBIs.
Games 1 and 2 will be played at the Buffaloes' home field, Kyocera Dome. The series shifts to Koshien Stadium for Games 3 and 4 (on October 31 and November 1) and, if necessary, Game 5 (on November 2).
If the series goes to a Game 6 and or 7, they would be played back at Kyocera Dome on November 4 and 5.
- Led by Skipper Akinobu Okada, the Hanshin Tigers Clinch Their First CL Pennant Since 2005
- [ODDS and EVENS] Yoshinobu Yamamoto is Having Another Sensational Season for the Buffaloes
- [NPB NOTEBOOK] Tigers Rookie Shota Morishita Starting to Make an Impression
Author: Jim Armstrong
The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles on SportsLook.