We’re nearly 50 games into this coronavirus-shortened Nippon Professional Baseball season. And it’s shaping up to be a memorable one despite the challenges the global pandemic has placed upon the NPB.
Although fans have been absent at a majority of the games so far, NPB teams are going out of their way to keep people involved. Just this week, the Yokohama DeNA Baystars launched a virtual platform for their fans to enjoy called “Virtual Hamasuta.”
The online project, created in conjunction with telecommunications company KDDI, lets fans enjoy Yokohama Stadium without ever leaving the house. Using an avatar to walk around, fans can explore the stadium or step onto the field while watching the Baystars play live on virtual big screens. The Japan Times called the project, “virtual public viewing.”
On the diamond, last year’s Japan Series contenders the Yomiuri Giants and Fukoka SoftBank Hawks are both doing well in their respective leagues. As we approach the halfway point of the season, the Giants sit with a 4-game lead over the Baystars in the Central League. The 2019 champion Fukoka SoftBank Hawks have been battling the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles for first place in the Pacific league, and currently sit with a 1-game lead.
Here’s a brief recap of what else you may have missed to get you up to speed on the season so far:
The Yokohama DeNA Baystars and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles are winning games thanks to two of the hottest bats in the game right now. Baystars captain Keita Sano has the highest batting average in the NPB (.355) and has been clutch in crucial situations. His team won five of six games against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows last week and made up significant ground on the Yomiuri Giants.
Stefen Romero of the Golden Eagles holds the NPB’s third highest batting average (.348). He hit three homers as the Eagles won four out of six games against the Fukoka SoftBank Hawks last week. During one of those games, Rakuten pitcher Hideaki Wakui pitched a no-hitter all the way into the ninth inning, when he allowed a single to the Hawks’ Keizo Kawashima.
Despite strong starts to the season, the Fukoka Softbank Hawks and Yomiuri Giants have both been slipping recently. In addition to losing four games in their series against Rakuten last week, the Hawks ran into injury trouble. Star reliever Dennis Sarfate found out he will need hip replacement surgery. Sarfate has been injury prone for a number of years now. But he is fifth in all-time saves in the NPB and was named MVP of the 2017 Japan Series.
The Giants have faced pitching trouble as well. They have blown leads late in games and dropping their recent series against the Chunichi Dragons. Things got so bleak for the Giants in their matchup against the Hanshin Tigers last week, that they put infielder Daiki Masuda on the mound during an 11-0 blowout. Masuda was the first position player to pitch in an NPB game since the year 2000.
The Orix Buffaloes and Saitama Seibu Lions are just playing bad baseball right now. The Buffaloes have lost seven straight and have the league’s worst record going 15-29-4. The Lions haven’t been much better. They’ve won just three of their last 13 games and sit with an 19-26-1 record.
The Buffaloes have had difficulty putting up runs this season, even with outfielder Masataka Yoshida playing the best ball of his career; Yoshida currently holds the second-best batting average in the NPB at .352. Fans probably wish they had Stefen Romero back from Rakuten. But, Orix let him go to free agency after last season.
Lions fans hope the team can turn things around after its rough start to their season. Outfielder Yuya Hasegawa tested positive for coronavirus. The team was forced to postpone a game against the Hawks earlier this month. They’ve also been without pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who had spinal surgery in early July. The team hopes to have him back in mid-September. Although if the Lions continue to flounder as they have, Daisuke may consider waiting until next year to return.
Jim Mora might think it’s too soon to start thinking about playoffs, but we’re going to do it anyway. With this year’s abridged structure, the Central league champion will go directly into the Japan Series. The top two teams in the Pacific league will play a four-game series for the pennant. Top seed gets a one-game advantage.
If the season ended today, the Fukoka Softbank Hawks would play the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles for the Pacific league pennant. The winner of that series would play the Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series.
However, the Yokohama DeNA Baystars have been hot. And there’s plenty of time to erase the Giant’s four-game lead in the Central. The Pacific league could see a major shakeup this week.
The Hawks may have a one game lead on the Golden Eagles. But they play the third-place Chiba Lotte Marines this week, who are only two games back. At the same time, the Golden Eagles will face off against the fourth-place Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, who are only 4.5 games back. Depending on the outcome of these two six-game series, the Pacific league standings could look a lot different for our next NPB update.
Oddsmakers with DraftKings still have last year’s Japan Series contenders as their two favorites to become champions in 2020. The Giants sit at +430 and the Hawks are listed at +335. However, both of these teams have been out of sorts in recent weeks. Currently, the Golden Eagles are listed at +850, Marines at +1300, BayStars at +1500 and Ham Fighters at +1800. But there’s a lot of baseball left to be played. So I’d hold off and watch the odds for a few more weeks before making any decisions.
If you’ve got your own predictions for NPB’s 2020 champion, leave us a comment below, and make sure to check back with The Challenge Sports next Saturday night for another NPB season update.
BANNER: Tokoro_ten//Tokoroten File