On Tuesday night, the Saitama Seibu Lions won their second straight Pacific League pennant, repeating as winners for the first time in 21 years (1997-1998). Rather than a usual weekly digest, in short, the Lions took five out of seven games in a stretch where 7 consecutive matches were played.
On the final day of that span, the magic number was two as the Lions blew out the Chiba Lotte Marines 12-4 and the Rakuten Eagles came back and defeated the Softbank Hawks 4-2 to clinch A-class for themselves, creating a celebration in Chiba. Ernesto Mejia was also a big hero during the week with a sayonara HR in the regular season home finale and a clutch double in Sendai with the game tied.
Looking back on this season, the Lions didn't dominate and didn't even hold a first place standing until September. How did this happen? Here's a breakdown of one of the more improbable pennant finishes:
No Hideto Asamura? No problem.
The Lions came off a historic offense in 2018 with a franchise record of runs scored. While tehy didn't reach that number this season, the production at second base from Shuta Tonosaki didn't hurt the team. Asamura is a better hitter for average and home runs, but Tonosaki showed his defense was better while still being in the 20-20 club. Production wasn't matched by any means, but it wasn't a complete step backwards.
Bullpen hid early starter problems
In the first half of the year, the Lions starting pitching was a huge void with many pitchers either missing or ineffective. One stable element was the back end of the bullpen, where Katsunori Hirai was the workhorse setup man and Tatsushi Masuda put in a great rebound season as the closer.
Hirai's production dipped once his arm started to wear out and pitching coach Kazuyoshi Ono overused him, but it's clear this team doesn't reach this stage without his efforts in the first half doing everything. The biggest thing is how Masuda is the FIP master with a lack of walks while also striking out several opponents.
Ono ended up riding Hirai's arm until it broke, but this call was necessary to make it where they are now.
Overcoming starter woes, injuries
Shinsaburo Tawata was the opening day starter, but only appeared in a total of 12 ichi-gun games due to poor performance and condition. Despite being the wins leader last season, his lack of strikeouts in 2018 continued into 2019 where he gave up loud contact. Daiki Enokida was supposed to help the rotation, but he was also injured and ineffective which led to a shortened year.
Tetsuya Utsumi was supposed to be a rotation starter after being compensation for the loss of Ginjiro Sumitani. After several setbacks and injuries, he failed to play an ichi-gun game for the entire season and just sold bento boxes (as he was marketed in the concession area). Even when he returned to ni-gun, he wasn't productive, making this selection a flop on all fronts.
Nakamura's resurgence picked up for Yamakawa
Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura had an outstanding year which led to him being the team's cleanup hitter in the second half, a position he used to hold. He led the league in RBIs, but several of them were clutch and meaningful, whether it was a bases loaded gapper or a grand slam. He padded his career grand slam total to 20, which is a league record when he passed Sadaharu Oh's in 2015.
While already hitting 30 HRs, his average was above .280 for most of the year and even reached a peak at .296. This was very unlike him or his identity, but he was a smart hitter while also being solid defensively at 3B.
Yamakawa was the cleanup hitter all of last year, but he was only big in the first half of 2019. While dropping his average to .245 at one point, the Lions made the right call to switch cleanup hitters as Yamakawa took a lesser role batting as low as 7th in the lineup. He still hit home runs, but wasn't as effective as his MVP season of 2018.
Zach Neal's redemption story
Zach Neal looked like he would take the path of any foreign import pitcher who struggles after four outings. He was sent to ni-gun in May and spent 40+ days working with the coaches on how to pitch in Japan, which changed his approach and location to fit NPB.
His hard work paid off when the Lions continued to win all of his starts beginning with June 20. The Lions went 13-0 and Neal was the winning pitcher in 11 of those starts. Neal's biggest strength is control, where he doesn't walk batters and isn't scared to challenge hitters. He was never a strikeout pitcher, but continued to be crafty at drawing the ground ball to let Tonosaki and Sosuke Genda do the work.
It's safe to say, Neal is the best foreign pitcher since Alex Graman. In terms of American starting pitchers, only Marion O'Neil can say he had at least 10 wins, which goes back to 1953 under the Nishitetsu Lions era and early days of professional baseball in Japan.
Bend, but don't break
|Source: Tehsuigi on NPB's Reddit.|
There were six instances where the Lions lost the first two games of a three-game series, but won the last match to salvage a victory. The Lions were never dead as a result and always being in the hunt before making a run in August. It wasn't until September when the Lions had their first taste of being in first place.
Core position players performed, living up to hype
Shogo Akiyama, Sosuke Genda, Tonosaki, Yuji Kaneko, Tomoya Mori and Yamakawa all played to their identities without looking back. Each player had their own role whether it was to steal bases, play defense, get on base or hit home runs.
Sure, someone could get cold somewhere, but the offense was still a balanced attack where they led the Pacific League in average, on base percentage, stolen bases while also being second in home runs. The Hatsuhiko Tsuji era has continued to evolve and adjust on offense while not needing to bunt much. It didn't hurt to have five players with at least 20 HRs as the Lions became the first to have all Japanese players with this distinction.
Foreign contributions were minimal outside of Neal
Chun-Lin Kuo was good for one spot start and flopped on another. Kyle Martin had a great stretch as a reliever during interleague play, but struggled against the Rakuten Eagles leading to his deactivation in the last two months. Deunte Heath had a nightmare start to the year and never found his rhythm in his first full season with the Lions.
Ernesto Mejia already established himself as a rare bench player with Yamakawa preventing him from getting regular playing time. While he did make some big hits, his production only saw time as a starter against left-handed pitching as he was a pinch hitter in majority of his games. The future is uncertain for all imports if they return to the Lions or not in 2020, including Neal.
Pitching and the team peaked at the right time
Slow and steady wins the race? While making sure they hovered .500 for most of the year, the Lions went on a tear in August while the starting pitching proved to be dominant in September. Not only from Neal, but Wataru Matsumoto, Ken Togame, Tatsuya Imai, Daiki Enokida and Kona Takahash had their share of decent starts.
It was in September where a role reversal took place as the hitting was cold, starting pitching did well while Masuda and Hirai were hard to watch at times. The team still found ways to come through whether it was an opposing error or a bad pitch.
Bullpen played matchups in the second half
Ono ended up playing the roulette wheel with his staff once Kyle Martin became ineffective and Hirai was wearing down. Ryuya Ogawa, Shogo Noda and Kaima Taira started to come in for the 7th inning, but it was Ogawa and Taira who dominated the appearances when leading. Taira looks to be a solid bullpen contributor for years as the Lions have lacked a hard thrower. Ogawa is decent at getting a ground ball, but isn't always reliable. Even Tsubasa Kokuba started to play a little more in the second half.
On the flip side, it was disappointing Hiromasa Saito and Hayato Takagi couldn't crack much at the ichi-gun level with the former being used as a short starter and saw only a few games this year.
Defense, defense and defense
Tsuji has always focused on defense since being the Lions manager and this year was no different. Genda continued to make plays, but the middle of the infield got even better when Tonosaki's range was added at second base. This team doesn't have flashy web gems all the time, but their key has been to limit mistakes. Contrast that with what the Orix Buffaloes, Chiba Lotte Marines and even Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters were this year defensively.
Fumikazu Kimura was also serviceable defensively in thee field. At the end of the day, this covered majority of the pitching problems if the Lions could get to the ball and take away base hits or reduce the errors compared to the rest. This was the biggest reason the Lions took the pennant for the second straight year and shocked the NPB world after losing Yusei Kikuchi and Hideto Asamura from last season. They were able to Catch the Glory in a better late than never fashion.
Follow us on Twitter @Graveyardball