The Saitama Seibu Lions are coming off a second place finish and first A-class since 2013. Hatsuhiko Tsuji helped turn things around with a more defensive approach to coaching, as well as the rise of Hotaka Yamakawa and Sosuke Genda being regulars.
With all the success seen in 2017, the expectations only get larger in 2018. This year's motto is "Catch The Flag", which was used as early as August of 2017 when the team had a 13-game winning streak.
In addition to Catch The Flag the bottom line in gold says "栄光をつかみ獲れ / Eiko o Tsukami tore" which would refer to "Grab the glory" in English.
The Lions have had seven pennant clinching parties happen in front of them in the last nine years, including the last three in a row. The best way to prevent this is by winning the pennant yourself.
"[We can] win a championship [in 2018]," Kona Takahashi said in an interview with the Melbourne Aces.
Takahashi is a raw pitcher who is viewed as the future ace of the team. Having early success with the Lions, he struggled in Australia with the Aces and hopes to right the ship in 2018. Even though he spent majority of 2017 injured, he knew what the team accomplished last year with the hopes to be the best in the nation for the this time around.
The biggest reason to contend for a championship is having an ace in Yusei Kikuchi, emerging from a breakout season in 2017. This will likely be his last year in Japan, meaning the window with him as the team's ace goes away when he's posted to MLB.
Seibu will not be doomed when he's gone, but Kikuchi is the only proven starter to carry the team while the others are just part of a supporting cast. Shinsaburo Tawata has the upside to be a No. 1, but not an ace. Takahashi and Tatsuya Imai on paper will be the aces of the future, but the latter suffered a setback for breaking the law.
With the current core of Hideto Asamura, Sosuke Genda, Shogo Akiyama, Kikuchi and a rising Hotaka Yamakawa, the time is now. Asamura and Akiyama are entering their prime years and it will be the last chance with Kikuchi leading the way.
They need to take advantage of any opportunity they're given. Whether the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks find vulnerability down the stretch or are hungover at the start.
Speaking the Hawks, the Lions have yet to show they can compete against them head to head, where it's been one-sided for a very long time. Last year, they had a 1-11 record in the Fukuoka Yafuoku! Dome with another loss coming from Kitakyushu. Whenever the Lions go down Fukuoka, their pitchers falter, Kikuchi included. Crazy enough, Kikuchi has never had a "win" over the Hawks in his career.
No time could be better for the Lions to make noise in a year where Kikuchi is expected to leave, but the bats and speed can do plenty of damage offensively. This is the year to do it.
While we personally don't have championship expectations, it's clear that the players, fans and organization does from top to bottom after having a strong 2017.
Catch The Flag! 栄光をつかみ獲れ!
Here is an exclusive interview with Kona Takahashi and Shunta Nakatsuka. Thanks against to Steven Smith, interpreter Kobayashi-san, the Melbourne Aces and the Seibu Lions themselves for making this possible.
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