Boys of summer
With the Nippon Professional Baseball season hitting its mid-season All Star Break, here’s a look at how the five Kanto area teams are stacking up against the competition
The Ce-League’s first half has been tumultuous to say the least, with the top of the standings in constant upheaval. The Hiroshima Carp’s great start has cooled off and the Hanshin Tigers have faded a bit after making a charge.
With the dust settling, the team currently at the top is (surprise!) Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants. The perennial favorites have assumed their usual spot thanks in part to the strong play of second-year pitcher (and nephew of the team’s manager) Tomoyuki Sugano, whose 8 wins and 2.10 ERA are both tops in the circuit. The team played very well during the recent interleague schedule, and clinched the NPB’s best record during that stretch. The Kyojin’s success should come as no surprise to anyone—since the Central League’s inception in 1950, the Giants have won 55% of its championships.
Farther down the league’s standings are the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, who have been full of entertainment and drama since the season kicked off. The team has been overrun with injuries, including to reigning home run king Wladimir Balentien (Achilles) and Kazuhiro Hatakeyama, a longtime underachiever who finally was putting together a very impressive campaign before hurting his hamstring. The Swallows are down, then, but not out—a second half resurgence (after the injured players return) would surprise few. The team still leads the NPB in runs scored… but also in runs allowed, making games at Jingu Stadium high-scoring and entertaining affairs.
If the sight of the Giants leading the Central League comes as no surprise, then neither should the DeNA Yokohama BayStars (Japanese) sitting on the bottom. If the team follows through on their current path towards a last-place finish, it would be their tenth in the last 13 seasons. There is some light on the horizon, however: young infielder Takayuki Kajitani lit the world on fire in the second half of 2013, when he would have finished the season as the league’s batting champion had he had played enough games to qualify. While his torrid pace has dropped down to a more sustainable level in 2014, he currently leads the BayStars in hits, RBIs and stolen bases. This is a future NPB star in the making.
Pa-League teams have won the Japan Series in eight of the past 11 seasons, and if there was any doubt which league was stronger, June’s interleague period put an end to it. The standings say that the Orix Buffaloes are atop the league but the best team is likely the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, who have five of the league’s top seven hitters and are playing with swagger.
With those two teams running away with it, the Chiba Lotte Marines (official Japanese site) are currently battling the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters for third place, the league’s final playoff spot. However, no one knows better than the Marines that anything can happen once you get into the post-season. The 2010 Chiba team snuck into the third slot on the season’s last day, and then went on an improbable run to win the Japan Series. For that lightning to strike twice, they’ll need to find some consistency. They finished 12-12 during the recent interleague game schedule, alternating wins and losses in the last 11 games. With their notoriously rowdy fans behind them, however, a little spark can go a long way.
Lagging far behind everyone else are the Saitama Seibu Lions. Last year’s second-place team is now positively reeling at how quickly things have disintegrated. Many projected the extremely talented Lions into the playoffs, but their performance just hasn’t been there. The first casualty was dogmatic manager Haruki Ihara, who was given an, ahem, “indefinite leave of absence” after not even two months on the job. Ihara’s inflexible policies on everything from grooming standards to excessive sacrifice bunting (even for Japan!) caused grumbling in the dugout, but has too much damage already been done? Keep an eye on 25-year-old outfielder Fumikazu Kimura, a converted pitcher whose athleticism could make him one of the better all-around players in coming seasons.
Stay tuned, yakyu fans—there’s still plenty of baseball to be played. Soak it up while the summer sun still shines.