Japanese Baseball - Pacific League
Pacific League Guide
Saitama Seibu Lions
Founded: Nov. 26, 1949
The Lions were a founding member of the Pacific League, beginning play in 1950 as the Fukuoka-based Nishitetsu Clippers. They dropped the Clippers moniker for the name 'Lions' the next season and won five pennants from 1951-1963.
After three ownership changes, the renamed Seibu Lions moved to their current home Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, in 1979 where they would become one of the most successful franchises in Japanese baseball history.
The Lions were the team of the 80s, winning six league titles and four Japan Series championships during the decade. They opened the 90s with five successive league crowns (winning the Japan Series from 1990-92) and added two more Pacific League pennants in 1997 and 1998.
The Lions won the 2002 and 2004 league titles, beating the Chunichi Dragons in the Japan Series in '04 for their 12th Japan Series title. The Lions won the league again in 2008 and won the Japan Series after a late rally past the Yomiuri Giants of the Central League in Game 7 of the title series at Tokyo Dome.
This season the Lions took a step backward on offense despite having home run leader Takeya Nakamura slugging away and a bonafide superstar in shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima.
Ace Hideaki Wakui and fellow pitcher Takayuki Kishi are two of the game's better pitchers, but there is a drop in talent after those two. Veteran and former major leaguer Kazuhisa Ishii is showing the effects of age and Kazuyuki Hoashi regressed after a solid year in 2008.
Founded: Nov. 2, 2004
The Buffaloes were established on Nov. 2, 2004 as the result of the merger of the Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes.
The BlueWave began play in 1936 (as the Hankyu Braves) and went on to become one of the top teams in Japanese baseball, capturing 12 Pacific League titles and four Japan Series championships.
Among former BlueWave players is current MLB superstar Ichiro Suzuki, who began to wear "Ichiro" on his jersey instead of his surname at the behest of former BlueWave manager Akira Ogi.
Major leaguer So Taguchi also played for Orix while in Japan. The Kintetsu Buffaloes franchise also launched in 1936, but achieved far less success than the BlueWave, winning just four league championships, the last of which came in 2001.
Like the BlueWave, the Buffaloes also produced a MLB star, pitcher Hideo Nomo. Recent World Baseball Classic hero Hisashi Iwakuma also began his career with Kintetsu as did former major league reliever Akinori Otsuka.
The two franchises merged in 2004 to form the Orix Buffaloes. The current franchise plays its home games at Skymark Stadium and Osaka Dome, the former home parks of the Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes respectively.
The new franchise didn't experience much success until the 2008 season when the Buffaloes unexpectedly finished second in the league behind strong pitching and a powerful lineup led by foreign sluggers Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera.
The 2009 season hasn't been as kind, as injuries have ravaged the lineup and the pitching staff has underperformed.
Rhodes, Cabrera and fellow slugger Gregg LaRocca have all missed significant time this season and the pitching staff has struggled to keep opposing teams from lighting up the scoreboard.
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
Founded: Nov. 6, 1945
The Fighters were a woeful team during the first part of their existence but managed to win their first pennant in 1962 while known as the Toei Flyers and played their games at Meiji Jingu Stadium.
Renamed the Nippon Ham Fighters on Nov. 19, 1973, the team was often mired at the bottom of the standings before capturing its second pennant in 1981.
In addition to struggling to win games, Nippon Ham also struggled to attract fans, having to share Korakuen Stadium and later Tokyo Dome with the extremely popular Yomiuri Giants.
In search of a larger fanbase and an identity of its own the franchise packed up and moved to Sapporo prior to the 2004 season.
The move paid off, and led by Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Michihiro Ogasawara and young pitching star Yu Darvish, the Fighters won the PL pennant and Japan Series titles in 2006 and have been major players in the Pacific League ever since.
After years of struggling to score runs, the Fighters have one of Japanese baseball's finest offenses in 2009. Led by MVP-candidate Atsunori Inaba the Fighters are scoring runs at a torrid pace and look on track to claim their second Pacific League pennant in three seasons.
Of course, pitching is Nippon Ham's calling card and fittingly Darvish, Japan's top pitcher, is the centerpiece of the rotation. Darvish was 16-4 with a 1.88 ERA last season, recording 208 strikeouts.
Chiba Lotte Marines
Founded: Sept. 21, 1949
The franchise began in 1950 as the Manichi Orions, a founding member of the Pacific League. The team won the inaugural Japan Series in 1950, defeating the Shochiku Robins four games to two.
The franchise would not win another pennant until 1960, by which time it had been renamed the Mainichi Daimai Orions. The team was known as the Tokyo Orions from 1969-68 and the Lotte Orions from 1969-1991, winning the Japan Series in 1974.
The team was renamed the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1992 and finally duplicated the success of the '74 squad with a league title and Japan Series title under manager Bobby Valentine, who became the first foreign manager to win the Japan Series.
The Marines have since fallen back on hard times, coming within a game of a return to the Japan Series in 2007 but finishing fourth in the standings in 2008.
The 2009 team has been mired in the controversy of Valentine's contract status and its performance has been a disappointment for much of the 2009 campaign.
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Founded: Nov. 2, 2004
The Eagles began play in 2005, filling the void left by the merger of the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix BlueWave.
Managed by Yasushi Tao, the Eagles scored a 3-1 victory over the Chiba Lotte Marines in their inaugural game but tied an NPB record with a 26-0 defeat in their second contest. The Eagles went on to a last place finish.
Tao was replaced by Katsuya Nomura in 2006 and the veteran manager led the team to an impressive fourth-place finish in 2007.
In 2009 Nomura has the Eagles in the hunt to reach to postseason for the first time in franchise history, relying heavily on former Kintetsu Buffaloes pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma and young fireballer Masahiro Tanaka.
Fukuoka Softbank Hawks
Founded March 1, 1938
The Hawks franchise began in 1938 and after some rough beginnings became one of the top teams in Japanese baseball in the early 50's. Under manager Kazuto Tsuruoka, the Hawks won the league title six times and captured two Japan Series crowns from 1950-1964.
The team fell back on hard times from then until its sale to Daiei, Inc., and subsequent move to Fukuoka in 1988. The Hawks enjoyed success again during the latter part of the century, winning the 1999 Pacific League pennant and Japan Series. The Hawks would win the league title again in 2000 and 2003, the latter of which came with yet another Japan Series title.
It was during this period that the Hawks were embroiled in a controversy surrounding the single-season home run record of 55, which at the time was held by manager Sadaharu Oh.
Kintetsu Buffaloes slugger Tuffy Rhodes matched the record with several games remaining in the 2001 season but was intentionally walked in every at-bat during a late-season series against Oh's Hawks.
Oh denied any involvement in the practice, which was denounced by Pacific League commissioner Hiromori Kawashima. Nevertheless, the practice was repeated the very next season when Alex Cabrera reached 55 with five games left and faced Oh's Hawks in a late-season series.
The team was sold to Softbank in 2005 and has enjoyed marginal success but haven't won a league title since 2005.
The 2009 Hawks are led by all-star pitcher Toshiya Sugiuchi and aging sluggers Nobuhiko Matsunaka and Hiroki Kokubo. With a nice combination of offense and solid starting pitching and a new manager in Koji Akiyama, the Hawks are poised to make a run at reclaiming their past glory this season.
Pacific League Ballparks
Stadium: Chiba Marine Stadium
Stadium: Invoice Seibu Dome
Stadium: Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome
Stadium: Sapporo Dome
Stadium: Kleenex Stadium Miyagi
Stadium: Osaka Dome