Saturday, July 15, 2017

Lions survive the first half, hoping to build off strong start

The Saitama Seibu Lions currently sit in A-class, six games in front of the Orix Buffaloes in third place. Obviously, we want to stay there for the remainder of the regular season.

On the flip side, we've seen this story before of having a good start. Two years ago, the Lions looked like an A-class team before a historic 13-game losing streak would have the Chiba Lotte Marines take advantage and leapfrog ahead.

In 2015, it was the pitching that overachieved before things fell apart. Tomomi Takahashi, Ken Togame and Ryoma Nogami would have natural regression. With no closer, the Lions tried to have Kazuhisa Makita close games, which also came back to bite as he failed. The turmoil continued and in what was a meaningful game, they had to play Fumiya Nishiguchi for a retirement ceremony which led to a walk, having this as a priority over the playoff race.

Being nine games over .500 is something we'll take any day, but this team can still get better. Tomoya Mori will hopefully come back from being hit by a pitch. Takahashi could return from Tommy John surgery as early as August.

The hitting can be very up and down, which is expected. Slumps have been minimal, when it could've been worse. The Lions would have a 5-game losing streak which carried over from the end of June to the start of July as Tatsushi Masuda allowed a walkoff two-run HR with two outs. Usually a backbreaking loss is what has snake-bitten this team in the past. This year, it only lasted a week and the best remedy was to play the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, who are going through a rough season.

Here are some of the many questions that will be answered as the second half begins:

Will the rotation hold up? 

Togame has been playing better than his numbers since the month of June. Nogami has stayed in the rotation and earned his spot there. Even spot starter Yosuke Okamoto has been respectable in his time on the mound. There's been plenty of spot starting with Yasuo Sano (out for the season) included, but now the attention turns to Stephen Fife.

The Lions management felt they could get a pitcher who's good at getting the ground ball. Two starts isn't enough to judge him, but if he stays in the rotation, Fife would make the Lions a lock for A-class.

Yusei Kikuchi has finally shown the ability to be an ace pitcher this year. However, his past has shown that he has been injury prone, so it will be a question if he can be healthy. Same goes for Brian Wolfe, who is good when healthy, but has had his share of injuries over the years. So far, the Lions have dodged a bullet when he left a game early and only missed one start.

Shinsaburo Tawata and Kona Takahashi haven't even contributed much to the rotation, yet I viewed both of them as being vital pieces for success in 2017. Tawata has recently been with the ichi-gun, but hasn't shown any signs of how he played in the second half of 2016.

Can the defense continue to "Catch The All"? 

Several pitchers are benefiting from good defense behind them. They lack strikeouts and have been weak contact pitchers. Sosuke Genda has been a revolutionary change at SS from a year ago, which Hideto Asamura continue to be good at complementing the middle of the infield. Shogo Akiyama, Yuji Kaneko and Shuta Tonosaki combine for having the best range in the outfield while Fumikazu Kimura's arm has contributed as a late substitution.

Brian Schlitter in particular has to ask the defense to carry him. Will it be sustainable?

What can Hotaka Yamakawa do? 

Yamakawa has started the season on the opening day roster in both 2016 and 2017, yet also gone down to ni-gun for a poor April. After tearing up the farm games, the Lions brought him back up and the home runs have started. This year, the Lions are playing meaningful baseball and the mentality will be different compared to how last year's storm was.

Bullpen controversy? 

The Lions have plenty of options in the bullpen if Tatsushi Masuda struggles. He isn't bad, but he hasn't been the dominant reliever he was in 2015. T. Takahashi returns from Tommy John, Schlitter can close while Tatsuya Oishi is another option out of the bullpen. If they're really feeling desperate, Kazuhisa Makita can also take a closer role like he did for Samurai Japan during the WBC.


There are plenty of other things to point at. While the hitting has had its moments, the pitching has done well up to this point and will need to play well if the Lions want to be in A-class. We'll find out as the second half begins this week ahead. Fasten your seatbelts everyone, it shall be a bumpy ride.


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