On September 13, 2015, the Central League achieved symmetry. Yomiuri beat DeNA 3-0, Chunichi tied Yakult 2-2, and Hanshin lost to Hiroshima 0-3. This is something of a microcosm of how the Central League pennant race has played out. For most of the second half of the season, Hanshin, Yakult and Yomiuri have taken turns holding first place, while Hiroshima hovers a few games back. Over the last two weeks, the race has tightened up even further, with four teams within 3 games of first place, and the top three locked in tie-like conditions.
(Standing as of Sept 13)
So who’s gonna win?
It’s still anyone’s pennant.
Remember that in Japan, the champion is whoever loses the fewest games, so this race is maybe even a little more neck and neck than it appears. In pretty much every game, each of the four contenders a chance to add to their win column, but also bump up an opponents lose column. But in doing so they also help their other rivals.
Erm, so who’s gonna win?
Let’s also point out that the top three placed teams will qualify for the playoffs, but the league champion gets a bye in the first stage of the Climax Series playoffs, and a one-game advantage in the second stage. Given the parity of the teams this year, that’s a big prize.
Right, okay, who’s gonna win?
Yakult wins if… their starting pitching holds up through the rest of September. The Swallows have been on a bit of a run lately, going 9-3-1 over the last three weeks. Over that stretch, rainouts and off days have allowed them to rely almost entirely on four starters: Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa, Taichi Ishiyama, Masanori Ishikawa, and Shohei Tateyama. Over the second half of September, the Swallows will have 11 games over a stretch of 13 days, and will probably have to dig a little deeper in to their rotation, especially as Tateyama is returning from his third Tommy John surgery. A well-timed gutsy performance from a guy like Hirofumi Yamanaka or Orlando Roman could be the difference between a league title and a third-place finish. Key players: Yamanaka, Roman, Tateyama’s current ulnar collateral ligament.
Hanshin wins if… they can keep Hiroshima at bay, which they have so far not managed to do. Hanshin is 7-12-2 on the season against Hiroshima, but more importantly entered September with nine of their last 27 games to play against the Carp. So far five of those nine games have been played, and Hanshin is 1-3-1. Unfortunately for the Tigers, three of the remaining four games are on Hiroshima’s home ground, so their work is cut out for them, but they have to find a way to put a few losses on Hiroshima’s ledger. Aside from that, Hanshin has four more games against DeNA and Chunichi, whom they’ve enjoyed beating up on this year. The Tigers need take full advantage of their remaining opportunities to pad their record. Key players: Matt Murton and Mauro Gomez.
Yomiuri wins if… they can gain the upper hand on Yakult. The Tokyo rivals are an interesting matchup; Yakult having the league’s best offense, and Giants being the most adept at run prevention. The Swallows and Giants have perfectly split their 20 meetings so far this year, and have five left to play. Yomiuri’s pitchers have done a good job at keeping Yakult off the board, holding them to 3.1 runs per meeting, compared with their season average of 3.99. But they need to score runs to win, and in nine of their 10 losses to the Swallows, Yomiuri’s offense has put up three or fewer runs. Key player: anyone who happens to be holding a bat.
Hiroshima wins if… they can continue to beat Hanshin, and Yomiuri and Yakult trade wins with each other. After a vexing, underachieving season, the Carp have finally pulled up to the rest of the pack, though they are still on the outside looking in. The key to the remainder of Hiroshima’s season is sort of the inverse of Hanshin’s. They need to continue their success against the Tigers, and reverse their luck against the bottom-dwelling Dragons and Baystars. They Carp might be in first place if it wasn’t for their incompetence against the Central League’s worst two teams, whom they are a combined 16-26-1 against. But if they can make that record look a little better over the seven games they have left against those two teams, they’ll obviously be in better shape. Key player: Brad Eldred. The Carp seem to win when he hits.
My prediction: I didn’t write it down at the time, but my pre-season pick was Hiroshima and I’m sticking with that. I’m giving them the league, beating Yakult’s winning percentage by a fraction. Hanshin stands to lose the most if Hiroshima succeeds, so I’ll pick them for fourth, with Yomiuri defaulting to third position.