NPB Pacific Turns Into Three Team Race

The two top teams in the Pacific were the Rakuten Golden Eagles and the Softbank Hawks. A recent 13 game winning streak by the Seibu Lions have put them in the rearview mirror. Since only three teams from each conference make the playoffs, these three teams are almost guaranteed to make a playoff appearance, a full 14 games ahead of their closest pursuers. Since the number one seed gets to play all their playoff games at their park the race is not over yet. Each team will try to win games to become that number one seed.

Softbank Hawks (65-35-0)

Considering the Hawks have made the playoffs the last two seasons it was quite disturbing for fans to see them near the bottom of the division after a good chunk of the season had been played. After winning the conference the previous two years they were beaten out by the eventual champion Nippon Ham Fighters last year. This year the Fighters have been without Shohei Otani for most of the year and find themselves at the bottom of the conference.

The Hawks are led on offense by Yuki Yanagita, who in 2015 had a fabulous season hitting .363 with 34 homeruns and 32 stolen bases as a 26 year old. He got off to a slow start to this season but has now upped his average to .325 and his 26 homeruns is close to approaching his 2015 career high. It is a nice bounce back from what was considered an off year last season. Alfredo Despaigne is one of the few Cuban sluggers who has not defected to the major leagues. His participation in the NPB limits the number of games he plays for his Cuban team. Alfredo does not hit for the average of Yanagita (.253) but the power is there with his 23 homeruns. Seiichi Uchikawa is the veteran presence of the group that provides consistency in the lineup. He will fall short of the 106 runs he drove in last year but at .294, 12, 49 his production is valuable.

The top pitcher on the staff is Nao Higashihama, whose 11 wins is tied for the lead in the Pacific Conference and his 2.26 ERA is third in the conference. The 11 wins for the 27 year old is already a career high and the ERA is his lowest in his five year NPB career. Rick Vanden Hurk has made a career pitching in the Netherlands, Korea, the United States and Japan. The Dutch born hurler is in his third season in Japan where his nine wins has already achieved his career high. His ERA sits at 3.18.

The top closer in the NPB is perhaps Dennis Sarfarte. He is approaching his third straight season with 40 or more saves (34), a skill most major league teams would pay millions for. His ERA is a microscopic 1.20. He has one of the best setup men in the NPB this year in Sho Iwasaki (1.94 ERA, 26 holds) to get the game into the ninth. After nine rather unimpressive years this is the best season for Iwasaki.

Rakuten Golden Eagles (59-32-1)

The Eagles have made a living off their starting pitching. Two major leaguers Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka both have had success in the major leagues and Japan. Add Takahiro Norimoto to that list soon. This year he is 10-3 but his 3.37 ERA is a tad high compared to previous years. The last three years he has struck out more than 200 hitters. This year he sits at 151 whiffs and should have no problem making it a fourth year with 200 or more K’s. Takayuki Kishi (8-4, 2.18) and Manabu Mima (9-3, 2.80) give the Eagles a big three in the rotation. Kishi is second in the conference in ERA and was a free agent signing from Seibu where he had accumulated 103 wins in a 10 year career. Mima is perhaps having his best season since 2012. He has already tied for his career high in wins.

Yuki Matsui would be a dwarf when standing next to major league pitchers. His 5′9″ height is not what scouts look for in pitchers. They would not complain about a pitcher who has a 0.20 ERA, corralled 29 saves and gives up just 22 hits in 44.2 innings. Walks can still be a problem but he is having a nice bounce back year after his 3.32 ERA last season. Hiroyuki Fukuyama (6-0, 0.96) does a pretty good job of getting the ball to Matsui with a lead.

Fans have been excited about the energy second year player Eigoro Mogi has put in the lineup batting from the leadoff position. He is hitting .303 with 14 homeruns and a .375 OBP. The one thing he does not do is steal bases. The power in the lineup is provided by the foreign trio of Zealous Wheeler (.283, 24, 57), Carlos Peguero (.307, 21, 63) and Japhet Amador (.224, 17, 42). Amador is a big man who came from Mexico. The Astros signed him but after struggling in the major leagues he returned to the Mexican League where Rakuten found him.

Seibu Lions (57-38-2)

The Seibu Lions were once a proud franchise that brought the major leagues Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kaz Matsui. They are starting to get some of their mojo back heading towards their first playoff appearance since 2013. Shogo Akiyama is their big hitter this year with a league leading .332 average. He has also contributed some power with a career high 20 homeruns, six more than his previous career high with 40 more games of the season to play. Hideto Asamura (.309, 12, 74) give the Lions a good 1-2 punch at the top of the order. They have been disappointed in the foreign bat of Ernesto Mejia (.245, 16, 49) sending him to their minor leagues to get his swing back. Takeya Nakamura (.224, 24, 68) is another big power hitter whose hitting skills have been declining.

The Lions have perhaps one of the best pitchers in the league this year in Yusei Kikuchi, who was the Shohei Otani from a number of years ago, telling Japanese teams he did not want to be drafted because he wanted to pitch in the major leagues. With a mid-90s fastball he is 11-4 with a 1.90 ERA, the wins tied for first in the Pacific Conference and his ERA number one. His 146 whiffs falls short only of Norimoto. This is his best NPB season after struggling early in his career. Brian Wolfe (9-2, 2.61) has been a good foreign pick up as has set up man Brian Schlitter (0-3, 1.53 ERA).

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