Lotte Marines right-hander Roki Sasaki pitches against the Nippon Ham Fighters in his first start of the Nippon Professional Baseball season at Zozo Marine Stadium in Chiba, near Tokyo, on April 6, 2023. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)
By Conor Liguori
World Baseball Network
Only four teams remain after exciting finishes in the Nippon Professional Baseball’s Climax Series First Stage matchups.
In the Pacific League, the Chiba Lotte Marines defeated the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks two games to one to advance, and the Hiroshima Toyo Carp eliminated the Yokohama DeNA BayStars in two games to advance to the Central League Final Stage.
The Orix Buffaloes and Hanshin Tigers were the two teams that had already booked their tickets to their league’s Final Stage. Orix finished the regular season with the best record in the Pacific League and Nippon Professional Baseball (86-53-4), and the Hanshin Tigers (85-53-5) finished in first place in the Central League. The league champions will have home-field advantage throughout the Final Stage and begin the six-game series with a one-game lead over their opponents.
Before the Pacific and Central League Final Stage begins on Wednesday, October 18, let’s look at the exciting matchups to look forward to.
Central League – Hiroshima Toyo Carp vs. Hanshin Tigers
The Hiroshima Toyo Carp defeated the Yokohama DeNA BayStars 3-2 in game one and 4-2 in game two to advance to the Final Stage. Their starting pitchers will need more outings like the ones they received from Hiroki Tokada and Masato Morishita if they want to take down the Tigers.
Tokada allowed two earned runs in 5.1 innings in game one, and Morishita threw 5.1 scoreless innings in game two. The Carp offense mustered a combined seven runs in the series, with the most significant run coming from the bat of former Cincinnati Reds outfielder Shogo Akiyama. Akiyama hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the 11th in game one to send Carp fans home happy. Hiroshima is seeking its first Central League Championship since 2018.
The Hanshin Tigers last played a game on Wednesday, October 4, almost two weeks ago. Still, they should be considered the favorites against Hiroshima. The Tigers do not hit many home runs and use contact and speed to produce runs. Outfielder Koji Chikamoto led the team with 28 stolen bases in 31 attempts.
Starting pitcher Shoki Murakami is a strong candidate to start game one on the bump for Hanshin. He had a remarkable 1.75 ERA in 22 starts in 2023. Hanshin is seeking its first Central League Championship since 2005.
Game one of the Central League Final Stage between the Hiroshima Toyo Carp and Hanshin Tigers will be played on Wednesday, October 18, at 5 a.m. ET. All contests during the series will take place at Hanshin Koshien Stadium, home of the Tigers.
Pacific League – Chiba Lotte Marines vs. Orix Buffaloes
Chiba Lotte was on the brink of elimination in game three of the First Stage after the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks took a 3-0 lead in the top of the 10th. Miraculously, the Marines rallied for four runs in the bottom of the frame on a three-run home run from shortstop Yudai Fujioka and a walk-off double from Hisanori Yasuda.
Power hitter Gregory Polanco led the offense in 2023 and finished the regular season tied with Kensuke Kondoh (Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks) and Hideto Asamura (Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles) for the NPB home run title with 26 blasts. The Marines are looking to be crowned Pacific League champions for the first time since 2005.
Chiba Lotte now faces off against the defending champion Orix Buffaloes. Orix is led by superstar right-handed pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who recently secured his third consecutive pitching Triple Crown. Fans of Nippon Professional Baseball are chomping at the bit to see Yamamoto and Chiba Lotte Marines’ starting pitcher Roki Sasaki pitch against one another. The potential future Major League Baseball stars were teammates in the 2023 World Baseball Classic for Japan. Catcher Tomoya Mori led the Buffaloes with 18 home runs and 64 RBI.
As the defending NPB champions, Orix is the favorite ahead of the series. Before 2022, they were crowned Pacific League champions in 2021.
Game one of the Pacific League Final Stage between the Chiba Lotte Marines and Orix Buffaloes will be played on Wednesday, October 18, at 5 a.m. ET. All contests during the series will take place at Kyocera Dome Osaka, home of the Buffaloes.