CL Playoff Picture: It’s Crowded At The Top

» 04 September 2011 » In npb »

It’s September 4th, and 5 games separate first place from 5th place in the Central League. Six weeks to go and five teams fighting for only three spots at the table come playoff time. We’re at a time in the season where every game feels like game 7; every win a step closer to the trophy and every loss two steps back. Everyone has about 30 games left and with it this packed at the top, virtually all but one team in the league is in position to grab a spot. Who has the best shot?

With or without Alex Ramirez, Yakult tends to do pretty well while living in Yomiuri’s shadow in Tokyo. They currently find themselves at the top of the standings with some breathing room, but can hardly be considered dominating. They currently lead the league in ties, and when you don’t have to chalk up a loss when you can’t record a win, that pays off in your spot in the standings. Of course the downside to that is with all of those ties, they were a bad hop away from several more losses, and 3rd or 4th place rather than first. It’s hard to imagine that a team that’s basically tied it’s way to first place can win it all. But for now, it seems they are a lock for the playoffs. The thing Yakult fans need to worry about is that there is no co-champion here, and you need wins in the playoffs to avoid going home. Do they have the firepower to get by Hiroshima’s pitching or Yomiuri’s offense in a 5 or 7 game series?  Does their luck go south forcing them to drop some games and miss the playoffs? If that ball happens to bounce the other way for them in the coming weeks, they could find themselves out of this thing. It’s that close. Right now they look like a playoff team. Not necessarily a championship team.

The Kyojin Factor:

It’s true in every sport, in every league, in every nation: he who has a lot of money, wins a lot of games. But money doesn’t equal luck, and you need luck to win championships. It’s not 1968 anymore, so you can’t expect to go to Vegas to lay down $20 on Yomiuri to win it all…..and win $1. It’s at least 50/50 now so if you’re a Giants fan you should win some money from time to time, and if you’re not, you might stumble upon a trophy once in a while.   As with any other year, Yomiuri has enough pitching, defense, and offense to bring home another championship. Even though they are not in first, every team in the league should be circling the dates they have with the Giants. You need to beat this team. Not only to improve your spot in the standings, but also to do what you can to keep them on the outside looking in. There’s plenty of opportunity left for every other team to push the Giants out. Is there anyone that’s man enough?

The Spoiler Factor:

On the other hand, while it’s not surprising that Yokohama is out of the race at this point in the season, the impact they can have on the playoff picture could be huge. Although the Bay Stars have a losing record against every team in the CL this year, they have matched up well against Yomiuri and Hanshin. Their 6-8-2 record against the Tigers should make Hanshin fans nervous in the six games they have left against each other. Hanshin needs better than a .500 record between now and October 16th to escape the bubble. That’s hard enough to do against four hungry teams that are fighting for a spot in the playoffs. Now throw in the fact that they have not done particularly well against the worst team in the league that now has nothing to lose.  Play breakeven ball against the playoff caliber teams, and lose against the Bay Stars, and Hanshin will find themselves out of the picture in a hurry.

Yokohama is only 5-9 against the Giants this year, but earlier in the season they found some success, and even a brief period where they owned a winning record against their big brother from across the bay. But as in life, things tend to even up in baseball, and the Giants have taken their annual position above the Bay Stars in the rankings. Having played well against them previously however, it wouldn’t be too shocking to see Yokohama muster up some moxie and take a few more games from the mighty Kyojin. Add that to some timely wins and losses elsewhere in the league, and the Giants could find themselves in a tough spot.

The Bay Stars should be happy when they don’t have to play Yakult, Hiroshima, or Chunichi any more this season. Although they have found a way to blow out the Dragons a couple times this year, Lady Luck has mostly turned a blind eye to their efforts against these teams. We should expect the Swallows, Carp, and Dragons to continue their success against Yokohama, which will put more pressure on Yomiuri and Hanshin to perform.

As we know, predictions and forecasts in these situations tend to be worth their weight in dirt.  The only thing we know at this point is that the Bay Stars will not make the playoffs. But will they have the strength to knock anyone else out, or will they be a door mat for the rest of the season?  Do they have enough left in the tank to push the two most popular teams in Japan out of the playoffs? I guess that’s why we play. In a way, you could say that the road to the 2011 Central League championship runs through Yokohama.

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