Despite 5 Hanshin Tigers players shockingly testing positive for COVID-19, the team managed to put together a winning week in the NPB with its piecemeal squad. In series against the Swallows, Dragons and Giants, the Tigers went 4-3.
In other Central League news, things got heated between the two last place teams Friday. The Carp were leading the Swallows 13-0 when an errant pitch ran in and hit former major leaguer Norichika Aoki. The benches cleared. But, coaches restored order before anything further occurred.
With one month of games left in this coronavirus shortened NPB season, I thought this would be a good time to look at the most important playmakers on each of the three playoff teams. Granted… a late streak by the Golden Eagles, Lions or Fighters could knock the Chiba Lotte Marines out of playoff contention. But, the probability is unlikely.
If the standings go unchanged, the Pacific League leading Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks will play the Chiba Lotte Marines in the first, and only, round of this year’s Climax Series. The Hawks are also in pursuit of a Japan Series four-peat after they were crowned NPB champions in 2017, 2018 & 2019. In the Central League, the 22-time champion Yomiuri Giants will ascend directly into the Japan Series. They can thank coronavirus-related rule changes.
Who to look out for as the postseason looms:
Pitcher – Tomoyuki Sugano
As his undefeated record shows, Tomoyuki Sugano has been dominant all season. In 15 games, the Giants right hander is 12-0 with a 1.76 ERA. His strikeout to walk ratio is more than 6:1. He has put together a strong case for MVP this year. I expect the 30-year old ace to factor heavily into the Giants’ postseason game plan.
Hitter– Kazuma Okamoto
It was the case the past two seasons and this year is no different: Kazuma Okamoto is a machine at the plate. Despite his middle of the road batting average of .279, the 24-year-old infielder has 61 runs and 72 RBIs on the season. Plus, a quarter of the kid’s hits are home runs; he’s hit a Central League leading 24 dingers this year.
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks:
Shuta Ishikawa is an absolute workhorse. The righty has appeared in 13 games and sports a 7-3 record so far. Ishikawa pitched the second most innings of anyone on the Hawks this season (83.2). He also has the second most strikeouts on the team (83). First-place in both innings pitched and strikeouts goes to Koudai Senga, who also holds a 7-3 record over 13 games. Senga has thrown 106 strikeouts over 86.2 innings, but his 3.01 ERA is higher than Ishikawa’s 2.37 ERA.
Hitter– Yuki Yanagita
31-year old veteran Yuki Yanagita is only getting better with age. The Hawks’ centerfielder not only has 71 runs and 64 RBI on the season, but also holds the second-highest batting average in the Pacific League. Yanagita is a stat sheet stuffer, with 5 triples, 24 homers and 7 stolen bases. He’s also blowing his other Pacific League competitors out of the water with an overall slugging percentage of .644.
Chiba Lotte Marines:
Pitcher– Naoya Masuda
Naoya Masuda isn’t just the Pacific League’s top closer, he’s been the top closer for the entire NPB. Masuda has already amassed 26 saves on the season, although his 2.11 ERA is a bit higher than some of his competitors. This could simply be a factor of how many close games Chiba Lotte has played on the year, but the Marines should still have confidence trotting the 30-year-old right hander out during the postseason. With only one home run allowed over 38.1 innings pitched, you know Masuda will at least give your defense a chance to win games when he’s called upon.
Hitter – Leonys Martin (5 walks in 5 plate appearances, teams are avoiding him)
Leonys Martin is the only non-Japanese player to feature on our list this week, and if his name sounds familiar it’s probably because you’ve watched him play before. Martin played nine years in the MLB for the Rangers, Mariners, Cubs, Tigers and Indians before making his way to the NPB and the Chiba Lotte Marines. The Cuban-born centerfielder has scored 67 runs, hit 24 homers, and batted in 62 runs this season. He holds a .521 slugging percentage, and teams are having some trouble pitching to him; in the Marines September 27 game against the Hawks, Martin walked five times in five trips to the plate.