Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Playoff thoughts here and there


It’s been a busy two weeks for me with the new job, friends visiting, and playing in a one-day ball hockey tournament. I haven’t had much time to watch the games on TV never mind go to one live. Fortunately things are settling back into a routine now, so I should be able to get to some upcoming college ball games and Top League Rugby.

Meanwhile, the regular season has finally ended here in Japan. I say finally because the NPB continues to play games long after the original schedule finishes. This is due to the large number of rainouts during the season; many of these postponed games are not made up during the schedule. In MLB, they try to play a doubleheader as soon as possible or find a date where each team has a day off and schedule the make-up game then. Rainouts near the end of the season with two eliminated teams are just cancelled outright, as happened to a Pirates-Cubs game this year. No matter what, the season must finish by the first Sunday in October so the playoffs can begin on time.

Here in Japan, there are no doubleheaders and teams don’t give up their off days. The actual schedule includes make-up dates in advance, but those are specified for two teams and come after a series between the two. For example, if Chunichi is visiting Yakult on Tuesday and Wednesday, the schedule may include a potential make-up game for these two teams. If either of the first two games is rained out, it can then be played on Thursday. Even then, the weather here can be atrocious at times, with consecutive rainouts not an uncommon situation. It’s not possible to reschedule all these games during the regular season, so the NPB keeps a 2-week window after it ends and schedules the make-up games for this time. Obviously, teams with domes have fewer rainouts, and so as the season winds down, one team may have 8 games left while another only has 2. This isn’t much of an issue, until these teams are vying for a playoff spot. It’s not quite the same as a pennant race when one team has so many games left and the other doesn't. This scenario was played out somewhat this season when Yakult and Hanshin waged the ugliest playoff race you’ll be likely to see.

With the Giants and Dragons comfortably taking the top two spots in the Central League, the 3rd and final Climax series berth was contested between 3 teams, each sporting under .500 records. When the regular season ended, Hanshin led Yakult by 1/2 game, with Hiroshima a further 2 games behind. But Yakult had 9 games remaining compared to only 5 for the Tigers and 6 for the Carp. So it was theirs for the taking. After splitting their first 4 make-up games (including a critical win over Hanshin), the Swallows still trailed by a 1/2 game. Fortunately they had 2 home games against the Tigers so there was some excitement as the season wound down (although not for Hiroshima, who had fallen out of contention - more on that later).

Amazingly, Yakult won both of their games and took 3rd place with two games to spare. They ended the season on a 5-game streak, giving hope to Swallows fans everywhere. It's still ugly though, as they finished 1 game under .500 (teams that lose more than they win should not be in the playoffs - this ain't the old-style NHL here), but at least they won their last few games to save some face. They now travel to Nagoya to take on Chunichi this weekend with the winner advancing to play the Giants.

Things were quite interesting in the Pacific League too, where Rakuten surprised many with a 2nd place finish and their first-ever playoff berth. They’ll host Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in the first round, with the winner moving on to Hokkaido to battle the Nippon Ham Fighters. I’ll be cheering for the Golden Eagles, as I like to see different teams have a chance to celebrate.

That brings me back to Hiroshima. With Rakuten now making the playoffs, only the Carp are left as the only team to have missed the post-season during my 13 years in Japan. Which is really sad when you consider Rakuten has only been around for 5 seasons. When I moved here, there were a good number of different league champions in the first few years and I used to think that I'd stay until each team won their league. When the Climax Series was introduced, I amended that caveat so that I'd leave after each team made the playoffs. Amazingly, the Carp (no coincidence that those letters also spell crap) have yet to do so, and therefore I remain here. Better luck next year!

Game times update

I've mentioned before how the average game in Japan takes about 20 minutes longer than that in the States. The NPB has been trying to shorten games, but not with much success. The average 9 inning game took 3:08 and the average game took 3:13 overall. I wish I could easily obtain pitch stats for both leagues somewhere to do a bit of analysis. But if I had to make sweeping generalizations, I think that the batters in Japan work the count more and see more pitches, while pitchers here aren't as aggressive, working the corners rather than challenging the batter. So I think there may be a few more pitches in the average game in Japan. As well, I think pitchers here might take longer between pitches - not enough that you'd notice on a pitch-to-pitch basis but enough to add a few minutes to the game. Whatever the case, it's not as prevalent in the other leagues, so I'd like to think the NPB can still achieve their goal.

MLB Playoffs

Ooops. I blinked and missed the divisional series. It always surprises me how quickly a team can be eliminated after the long 162-game season. It doesn’t seem fair that you play so many games for such a long time and then boom, you’re done after 3 playoff games. But I can’t see a better way to do it, other than to extend the series to a best-of-7 format. Which isn't going to happen, because that would push the World Series to November. I'm sure MLB wouldn't allow that, right?

For the Championship Series, it’d be nice to see the Angels and Dodgers win, if only because the Phillies were there last year and the Yankees are the Yankees. But it’s all big-market teams now, so it's not that exciting to me. Of course, I'm sure that MLB and Fox are salivating over the possibility of a Yankees-Dodgers World Series. But I'm still hoping for the Blue Jays and the Expos.

*Update*: The first game of the NLCS took an astounding 4:02. Yeah, it's the playoffs, but still, that's just silly. No more complaining about game times in Japan.

Next up

This weekend I'll see a couple of Big 6 games to finish my baseball season. Next weekend I'll check out some top league rugby. After that we've got some soccer with the Nabisco Cup, AFC Champions League, and maybe some Emperor's Cup action. I'm hoping now for a trip back home in January, and will let you know all about it after it's booked.

Best,

Sean



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