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Baseball: Giants face tough challenge to end CL's Series losing streak

Yomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano is pictured during practice at Kyocera Dome in Osaka on Nov. 20, 2020 ahead of the Japan Series. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The Central League champion Yomiuri Giants will face an uphill climb against their Pacific League counterparts, the SoftBank Hawks, in the Japan Series starting on Saturday at Kyocera Dome.

    The two teams are meeting in Nippon Professional Baseball's best-of-seven championship series for the second straight time after the Hawks swept the Giants last year. No CL team has won the series since the Giants in 2012, while the PL has only lost three times in the past 17 years.

    The Giants dominated their league in this year's abbreviated season, winning by 7-1/2 games. The Hawks, however, won their league with a 14-game margin and did so in a circuit that has done much better against the CL since interleague competition began in 2005.

    Unlike the regular season, announcing starting pitchers is optional, but for the third straight year, both teams agreed to it in the pre-series managers meeting. Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, reporters were not allowed to attend the meeting, although it was broadcast on Kyocera Dome's big screen.

    With that, each team named its ace to start on Saturday.

    Tomoyuki Sugano of the Giants went 14-2 with a 1.97 ERA this season and is fit after pitching with lower-back pain against the Hawks last autumn.

    But even with rookie Shosei Togo and first-year import Angel Sanchez, the Giants' starting rotation may have trouble matching the Hawks' hand of ace Kodai Senga (11-6, 2.16 ERA) and fellow right-hander Shuta Ishikawa, and lefties Matt Moore and Tsuyoshi Wada.

    Although there is not much to choose from between Giants closer Rubby De La Rosa and Hawks finisher Yuito Mori, the rest of the Hawks' bullpen is deeper. Cuban lefty Livan Moinelo is a particular treat to watch when he enters in the late innings for the Hawks.

    No one in Japan had a better year than Hawks center fielder Yuki Yanagita. A disciplined slugger with a knack for hitting the most improbable pitches over the fence, Yanagita headlines an attack that combines blazing speed in PL stolen base champ Ukyo Shuto, the ability to make great contact in slash-hitting first baseman Akira Nakamura and power with Yanagita and Cubans Yurisbel Gracial and Alfredo Despaigne.

    The Giants' offense is built around a big three of third baseman Kazuma Okamoto, who led the CL in homers and RBIs, center fielder Yoshihiro Maru and shortstop Hayato Sakamoto. Right fielder Seiya Matsubara brings speed to the starting lineup although skipper Tatsunori Hara always keeps extra speed on his bench.

    Both teams play excellent defense, but the Hawks, who grounded into only 50 double plays this year, are going to put Yomiuri's infield defense to the test.

    To contain the Hawks' base-stealing threat, Hara said Thursday he might play strong-armed rookie catcher Yukinori Kishida and let his good-hitting catcher Takumi Oshiro be the designated hitter -- a special option this year due to concerns over the PL pitchers' fitness during the pandemic.

    "I want to throw a runner out," Kishida said. "The impact of that one play can be big, and I want to turn things our way."

    Although the ballparks might not make much difference in the big picture, the Giants cannot host games at Tokyo Dome due to a scheduling conflict. Instead, they will host at Kyocera Dome, where the Hawks are frequent visitors against the PL's Orix Buffaloes.

    It will be the first time a Japan Series team will host games at another club's main stadium since 1980, when the PL's Kintetsu Buffaloes hosted the Hiroshima Carp at Osaka Stadium -- then the home of SoftBank's predecessors, the Nankai Hawks.

    Should the series be stopped prematurely due to the coronavirus, the championship will go to the team with the best record at that point, or the best ratio of runs scored to runs allowed if wins and losses are equal.

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