Thursday, November 8, 2007

Asian Series 2007

The third annual Konami Cup is set to start on November 8, 2007. The Konami Cup is a Round Robin championship between the three champions of Japan, Korea and Taiwan and the Chinese all stars. All the games will be played at Japan's Tokyo Dome. Japan has won the first two Konami Cups with the Chiba Lotte Marines winning in '05 and Nippon Ham Fighters winning in '06. Korea and Taiwan have both been runners up once. The China Stars are still looking for their first win.

The Chunichi Dragons finished the year in 2nd place in the Central League, but they won the climax series by defeating both Hanshin and Yomuiri to reach the Japan Series. It took only five games for the Dragons to defeat the Nippon Ham Fighters. The series ended with a combined perfect game from starting pitcher Daisuke Yamai and ace closer Hitoki Iwase.

Players to watch: Chunichi has the advantage in pitching and the best hitter in the tournement. Chunichi has three quality starters to use in the tournement. Kenta Asakura(12-7, 3.36 ERA, 105 K in 171.3 innings), Kenshin Kawakami(12-8, 3.55 ERA, 145 K in 167.3 innings) and Kenichi Nakata (3.59 ERA, 14-8, 177 K in 170.3 innings) aren't dominant aces like Doosan's Danny Rios or Yu Darvish of the Nippon Ham Fighters, but they can eat up innings and keep their team in the game.

Chunichi also has a fierce backend of their bullpen. Closer Hitoki Iwase was their 9th inning hammer all year. He posted 43 saves with a 2.44 ERA. He also struck out 50 in 59 innings of work this year while only walking 9 batters. Chunichi's top set up man is Shinya Okamoto. Okamoto didn't record a save all year, but he was a valuable bridge to Iwase. In 56 innings he allowed 67 runners to reach base. His ERA was 2.89 and he recorded 44 punch outs.

Tyrone Woods is probably the best power hitter in the tournament. He crushed 35 homers and drove in 102 for the Dragons. He posted an OPS of .948. The Dragons offense was helped by a career year out of utility man (seriously, this guy played everywhere)Masahiko Morino. Morino set career highs in almost every single major offensive category including homers (18), RBI(97), runs scored(75) and OBP(.366). It's also going to be interested to see Korean outfielder Lee Byung-Gyu take the field against his countrymen in the first game. He probably won't get plunked, at least not right away.

Chunichi is the clear favorite this year. They’ve got the advantage on paper as well as home field advantage for the tourney. This should be Japan’s third consecutive championship

The SK Wyverns finished at 73-48-5. They won the Korean Series in 6 games over the Doosan Bears, overcoming a 2-0 series deficit. They were in first for most of the season and no one ever really challenged them.

Players to watch: Pitching for the Wyverns starts with its two American starters, Mike Romano and Kenny Rayburn. Romano(12-4, 3.69 ERA, 81 K’s in 146.3 innings) and Rayburn(17-8, 3.27 ERA, 98 K’s in 184.6 innings) were easily the top two starters for SK last year and both will be important to SK’s success in the Asian Series.Chong Dae-Hyeon was the 9th inning hammer for SK last year, posting a microscopic 0.92 ERA in 78.3 innings. He recorded 27 saves and struck out 65. He was a big reason SK was so successful this year. When he was given a lead in the late innings, he protected it.

SK’s pitching and defense were the keys for SK this season. The team only hit .264 collectively, just good enough to come in 4th in the league. It was the fact that SK kept other teams off the scoreboard and avoided the big mistakes on defense. The goal for SK will be to keep the other teams off the scoreboard and scrape together a few runs and hope it’s good enough to win. SK will not be able to hang with Chunichi or Taiwan’s Uni-President Lions if games become slugfests. I’d expect SK pitching to be good enough to keep the Chinese team off the scoreboard.

SK didn’t have a single player finish in the top ten in either runs scored or RBI’s this season. Park Jae-Hong’s 17 homeruns were good enough for 9th in the league. Chong Gun-Woo lead SK with a .323 batting average this season (4th in the league), he managed to do this in 391 at bats.

For SK to have success in the Asian Series, they need to stick to the formula that got them here. Avoid big mistakes, capitalize when the other team gives them an opportunity and keep teams off the bases and off the scoreboard. SK will most likely be playing for runner-up.

The Uni-President Lions of the Chinese Professional Baseball League finished 2007 with a 58-41-1 record. After sweeping the Macoto Cobras in round one of the playoffs, it took the Lions a full seven games to win this years Taiwan series. They held a 3-1 series advantage, but allowed the La New Bears two consecutive wins to tie the series at 3-3.

Players to watch: Their top hitter is Dominican national, Tilson Brito. Brito is a journeyman in the truest sense. If I’m counting correctly, Taiwan is the 6th different country he’s played in during his professional career. He thumped 42 homers, drove in 132 and hit .307 on the season. Nelson Figueroa is essentially a ringer. He was brought in for the playoff push, starting only 4 games during the regular season. He won the Taiwan Series MVP award this year. He started games 1, 4 and 7 for the Lions. He won all three and was the difference in this year’s Taiwan Series. Pete Munro and his ridiculously fast, ridiculously straight fastball made the all-star team this year. Starting catcher, Kao Chih-Kang is one of the more famous players in the league. He was a member of the 2004 Olympic team and the 2006 WBC team. He carries a .280 batting average in 226 career games.

I don’t even have a logo for the Chinese team. China is still looking for its first win in Asian Series competition. Unless there’s a miracle for China or a disaster for the champions of the Asian leagues, I expect them to remain winless. Baseball is still in its infancy in China and the Chinese don’t have enough experience to compete with the strongest clubs in Asia.

My prediction? The Japanese look the best on paper and will be tough to overcome with their home field advantage.

The first game is in Tokyo on November 8. The first two games are the Uni-President Lions versus the Chinese All Stars and the Chunichi Dragons versus the SK Wyverns.

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