It’s that time of year again! When Central League teams face off against their Pacific League counterparts. Things will get started for the Swallows on Wednesday evening at Jingu when they face off against the defending Nippon Series Champion Hawks. The Interleague format hasn’t changed over the last couple of years, and if anyone needs a refresher they can go check out our 2010 Interleague Preview which lays out the nitty gritty of the system. The only major change is that starting pitcher announcements will now be made for Interleague games. The only other difference I can see reading the old preview is how much stronger the Japanese yen has gotten in the last 2 years. (50 million yen now gets you around 626,000 USD.)
While the goal is always going to be finishing with a better record than the 11 other teams and winning Interleague, being the top Central League team would be a fine consolation if we can’t top the table. Since every game ahead of a Central League rival is a game that the other team will have to make up in the Central League. In a 6 team league these games can come in handy late in the season when teams will be hitting each other and making advances up the table can be harder.
Last year the Swallows finished 6th overall with a 10-12-2 record, which was 3 games behind the Dragons who finished fourth overall with a 14-10 record. The Hawks won Interleague outright with a 18-4-2 record.
For those of you, who like me, are so Swallows-centric and don’t follow the Pacific League here’s s short blurb about the teams the Swallows will face and players to watch. This preview will cover the first 3 teams the Swallows will face. I’ll cover the next 3 teams next week.
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks: The defending champions have been chugging along despite losing key plays like Toshiya Sugiuchi, Tsuyoshi Wada, D.J. Houlten, and Munenori Kawasaki. Despite pre-season predictions of decline the Hawks are still in the thick of the PL race with a 19-17-2 record, which is good for 3rd in the league. The Hawks’ continued success is largely related to their ability to hit the ball. Former major leaguer Wily Mo Peña leads the PL with 8 homers, with a healthy .288/.345/.545 slash line. Nobuhiro Matsuda and Seiichi Uchikawa also bring quality hitting to the line up. In terms of pitching, the only big name left in the Haws’ rotation is Tadashi Settsu who is having a good season, with a 5-0 record with a 1.51 ERA in 7 starts. The last storyline worth tracking is Hiroki Kokubo gunning for 2000 career hits. With only 4 more hits left to reach the milestone, it’s possible that Kokubo will reach the milestone at Jingu.
Orix Buffaloes: The Buffaloes were the trendy pick to do well this season, but so far things have been pretty glum for the Buffaloes. The addition of Korean slugger Dae-Ho Lee has been a plus, but injuries to key players like T-Okada and Chihiro Kaneko have kept the Buffaloes from fielding their optimal lineup. The result has been a fight for the PL cellar with the Seibu Lions (more on that next week). Things may be looking up for the Buffaloes as Kaneko has looked good in his 2 starts this season, and Okada has recently rejoined the team. 10 year vet and former Giant Hiroshi Kisanuki has gotten off to a fairly hot start for the Buffaloes with a 1.87 ERA over 6 starts, including 2 complete games. Last year’s PL Interleague MVP, Tomotaka Sakaguchi has been showing his age with a .225/.250/.252 slash.
Chiba Lotte Marines: The Marines have rebounded nicely from the 2011 PL cellar, and currently top the PL. The Marines’ resurgence can be attributed in part to a strong rotation bolstered by the addition of the glad-to-leave-the Giants Seth Greisinger and rookie phenom Takahiro Fujioka to the duo of Yoshihisa Naruse and Yuki Karakawa. While Fujioka has gotten most of the rookie attention, Naoki Masuda has also contributed big time in his first season stabilizing the Marine’s bullpen. Another glad-to-leave-the Giants is Saburo who leads the team in OBP. Tadahito Iguchi is also putting up his usual solid early season numbers (.304/.367/.448). But otherwise, the Marines lineup lacks pop, and is overshadowed by their pitching.
The Swallows go into Interleague on a somewhat down note having lost 3 of their last 3 games, and seeing even more of their starters (Kawabata and Muranaka) be sent down to the farm. However, the lax Interleague scheduling will allow the team to give their pitchers plenty of rest and will hopefully give some players the chance to come back.