The Climax of the Japanese Baseball Season

Baseball fans are in the midst of the fervor of the MLB playoffs – with its no-hitters, 5-run comebacks, bullpen implosions, and 14-strikeout performances. Fans of Japanese baseball are also enjoying a little drama, although in a slightly different format.

In Japan, the top three teams from the two leagues – Central and Pacific – advance to the Climax Series. Yes, that’s the name of the playoffs in Japan. The Japanese love catchy phrases for marketing purposes.

The regular season league champions have a first-round bye while the second and third place finishers duke it out in a best-of-three series, known as the First Stage, and that winner advances to the Final Stage. Both stages of the Climax Series are played entirely at the home stadium of the higher-seeded team.

Chiba Lotte Marines

Image via Wikipedia

This season, the SoftBank Hawks clinched the regular season Pacific League title at the end of September and waited as the surging Chiba Lotte Marines surprised everyone by sweeping their First Stage opponent, the second place Seibu Lions.  Here’s where Japanese postseason baseball gets weird (as if it made perfect sense until now). Before the Final Stage of the Climax Series even began, the SoftBank Hawks already had a 1-0 lead over the Chiba Lotte Marines. Huh?

“The first place team gets a one-game advantage and all home games to give it every edge,” explains Wayne Graczyk, baseball columnist for The Japan Times and translator for the Yomiuri Giants. In other words, NPB does whatever it can to ensure the regular season champions advance to the Japan Series.

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks[/caption]

Alas, that was not to be in the Pacific League this season. Even with the 1-0 advantage, SoftBank could not hold off the third place Marines, who took the series 4 games to 3 to advance to the Japan Series. Thus, the team formerly managed by the beloved Bobby Valentine defeated the team formerly managed by the legendary Sadaharu Oh.

Meanwhile, defending Japan Series champion Yomiuri Giants, who finished third in the Central League this season, made quick work of their rivals, the Hanshin Tigers. After defeating the Tigers 3-1 in Game 1, the Giants swept the First Stage of the Central League Climax Series in come-from-behind fashion.

If the Giants win the Final Stage, that means both teams in the Japan Series finished third in the regular season. They’ll have to get past the Chunichi Dragons first. It’ll be a tough task, as the Giants have now dropped ten games in a row at the Nagoya Dome, including the first game of the series Tuesday night. Now, because of NPB’s playoff system, the Dragons have a 2-0 lead as of this writing.

The Final Stage of the Climax Series is a best-of-seven affair, but technically it’s a best-of-six series because of the same 1-game advantage to the higher-seeded team. Whatever way you slice it, the team that reaches four wins first advances to the Japan Series.

The first game of the Japan Series is Saturday, October 30 at the home stadium of the Giants/Dragons winner. Will the Giants advance for the chance to repeat? Or will the Marines, who last won the Japan Series in 2005 under Bobby V., prevail? Perhaps the drama of the Climax Series will keep the Japan Series from being anticlimactic.

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