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[NPB NOTEBOOK] Marines Beat Eagles to Book a Place in the Pacific League Climax Series

Masato Yoshii's team will face the Hawks in the first stage of the Climax Series, while the BayStars and Carp will meet in the Central League's opening round.

Kazuya Ojima threw seven scoreless innings as the Chiba Lotte Marines beat the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles 5-0 on Tuesday, October 10 to clinch a berth in the Pacific League Climax Series.

With the win at Rakuten Mobile Park Miyagi, the Marines moved into second place and will host the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in the best-of-three first stage at Zozo Marine Stadium from October 14-16.

Ojima (10-6) wasn't overpowering but struck out three while allowing six hits and a walk. 

Hiroki Oka put the Marines ahead with an RBI single off Rakuten starter Takahiro Norimoto in the second.

The Marines' Hisanori Yasuda salutes the crowd after hitting a home run in the fourth inning on October 10. (ⒸSANKEI)

Hisanori Yasuda made it 2-0 with a solo homer in the fourth. Takashi Ogino scored Yasuda on a single in the seventh and Toshiya Sato drove in two more insurance runs in the eighth.

"The players worked really hard to get second place," Lotte manager Masato Yoshii said, according to Kyodo News. "Everyone was focused on what they were capable of doing." 

The Marines and Hawks are pretty evenly matched, going 12-12 head-to-head this season. Home-field advantage and the possible return of star pitcher Roki Sasaki (see below) may give the Marines the edge in this one.

The winner takes on the PL champion and defending Japan Series champion Orix Buffaloes in the second stage at Osaka Dome beginning on October 18.

Trevor Bauer
Trevor Bauer (ⒸSANKEI)

A Look at the Central League Climax Series

In the other first-stage series, the Yokohama DeNA BayStars will play the Hiroshima Carp, also October 14-16, at Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium in Hiroshima, with the winner advancing to face the Central League champion Hanshin Tigers at Koshien Stadium.

The Carp should win this series. They were 14-10 against the BayStars in the regular season. 

But despite previous reports that he won't be available for the series, there is updated information that BayStars pitcher Trevor Bauer could be available. He has been working out ahead of the games and has reported no problems. Bauer, the National League's 2020 Cy Young Award winner, has been sidelined with a right hip injury since late August.

Japan Series Info

The best-of-seven Japan Series begins on Saturday, October 28 at the home park of the Pacific League team. 

Of course, anything can happen in the postseason. But given their regular season dominance an all-Kansai Japan Series featuring the Buffaloes and Tigers seems highly likely.

The Orix Buffaloes finished the regular season with a 15½-game lead over the Marines. They posted a winning record versus all other Pacific League teams.

The Hanshin Tigers had a 11½-game lead over Hiroshima. They had a winning record against every Central League team.

Orix Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto (ⒸSANKEI)

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Yamamoto Makes More History

One of the things that makes the Buffaloes so dominant is the presence of ace pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

The 25-year-old right-hander led the PL in wins (16), ERA (1.21), strikeouts (169) and win percentage (.727). He is the first player in Japanese professional baseball history to win this "Quadruple Crown" three years in a row.

Yamamoto allowed just two home runs in 2023. He reduced his number of walks to 28 from 42 the previous season.

"My throwing power has gotten stronger," Yamamoto, a key member of Japan's World Baseball Classic-winning team, told Kyodo News. "I'm making good progress."

It's easy to see why many teams in Major League Baseball are eager to sign the best pitcher in Japanese baseball.

Yamamoto credited Orix manager Satoshi Nakajima for doing a superb job in handling the pitching rotation.

"It's all thanks to manager Nakajima and his management of the pitching rotation and pitch count, as well as support from our training staff," Yamamoto said, according to Kyodo.

Not surprisingly, the Buffaloes announced recently that Nakajima will be back again next season.

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Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks star Kensuke Kondoh led the team in batting, home runs and RBIs this season. (ⒸSANKEI)

Kondoh Sizzles at the Plate

Another member of Japan's national team had a spectacular regular season after helping Samurai Japan to its third WBC title in the spring.

Kensuke Kondoh of the Hawks narrowly missed out on winning the Triple Crown.

Kondoh led the PL with 87 RBIs, was tied with Hideto Asamura of the Eagles and Gregory Polanco of the Marines for most homers (26) and just finished slightly below Orix Buffaloes player Yuma Tongu in batting average, .307 to .303.

Polanco, a Dominican-born slugger, was the first Lotte player to win the home run title since Hiromitsu Ochiai in 1986 (50 homers). He is the first non-Japanese Lotte player to win it since Leron Lee in 1977 (34 round-trippers).

Chiba Lotte Mariners hurler Roki Sasaki works out on October 9 in Sendai. (ⒸSANKEI)

Sasaki Eyes Return for Playoffs

One of the biggest questions for the Marines in the postseason is whether hard-throwing Roki Sasaki will be able to pitch.

The Marines got some very good news on Thursday, October 12. 

The 21-year-old Sasaki threw 21 pitches at Zozo Marine Stadium under the observation of Yoshii and Lotte pitching coach Tomohiro Kuroki.

"His output wasn't 100 percent but he was pitching pretty well," Kuroki was quoted as saying by Nikkan Sports. "We will make adjustments based on the situation."

If he returns, it would be his first time on the mound since September 17 against the Saitama Seibu Lions at Belluna Dome. And it would be a huge boost to Lotte's postseason rotation.

Japan's hardest-throwing pitcher was deactivated earlier this season with a left oblique-muscle injury.

In April 2022, Sasaki became Japan's youngest perfect-game pitcher and was also a member of Japan's team for the World Baseball Classic.

The standout right-hander is 7-4 this season with 135 strikeouts and a 1.78 ERA in 15 mound appearances for Lotte.

Hanamaki Higashi High School slugger Rintaro Sasaki bats in a National High School Baseball Championship game at Koshien Stadium in August 2023. (ⒸSANKEI)

Another Sasaki Turning Heads

According to multiple media reports, Japanese high school star Rintaro Sasaki has decided to forgo the NPB draft and will attend college in the United States.

The 17-year-old slugger, who is 6-foot-2 (188 cm), 250 pounds (113 kg), dominated high school baseball, hitting a record 140 home runs during his prep career. He was considered a first overall pick in the NPB draft.

Sasaki attends Iwate Prefecture's Hanamaki Higashi High School, the same school that produced Shohei Ohtani

He is surprisingly patient at the plate and has walked twice as many times as he has struck out. Defensively, he is limited to first base but fields his position well.

By going to the US, Sasaki would not be subject to MLB's international amateur rules but instead would be eligible for the MLB draft.

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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.

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