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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Munetaka Murakami Achieves a Big Career Milestone

Swallows slugger Munetaka Murakami belted his 200th career home run on May 15, becoming the youngest player in NPB history (24 years and 3 months) to do so.

Munetaka Murakami was the youngest NPB player to win the Triple Crown. He achieved that rare feat in 2022 at age 22 with Central League-leading totals of 56 home runs, 134 RBIs and a .318 batting average.

Now, at the ripe old age of 24 years and 3 months, Murakami has established another career benchmark.

With a mighty swing of his bat with two outs and nobody on base, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows third baseman crushed a homer over the right-center field fence in the eighth inning off Hiroshima Carp reliever Takuya Yasaki on Wednesday, May 15 in the Swallows' 2-0 victory. 

It was Murakami's 200th career home run.

Murakami reached that milestone faster than any player in NPB history. He rewrote the previous record set by former Seibu Lions standout Kazuhiro Kiyohara (24 years and 10 months) in 1992.

Munetaka Murakami
Munetaka Murakami holds a commemorative sign after belting his 200th career homer on May 15. (KYODO)

After the game at Matsuyama Botchan Stadium in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, Murakami commented on breaking Kiyohara's record.

"It's just a passing mark, I want to do my best to hit more. ," Murakami was quoted as saying by NHK.

He also talked about the significance of Matsuyama in his career.

"I trained a lot in Matsuyama in my first year as a pro [during the offseason], and here is where it all began," Murakami said, according to Kyodo News. 

He added, "I'm really happy to hit the milestone home run at such a place."

By the Numbers: Munetaka Murakami in 2024 

Murakami leads the Central League with 10 homers entering Sunday's games. He's batting .259 with 20 RBIs. And he also has a .496 slugging percentage.

In 2023, he had 31 homers, 84 RBIs and a .256 average while finishing with a .500 slugging percentage.

After striking out 168 times in 497 at-bats last season, Murakami is once again prone to getting whiffed in 2024. He had 46 strikeouts in 135 at-bats heading into Sunday, May 19's game against the Hanshin Tigers. But he's also walked 36 times in 39 games, a reminder that pitchers are always aware of his power-hitting ability.

Murakami is expected to leave the Swallows after the 2025 NPB season and continue his career with a Major League Baseball team.

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Chicago Cubs right fielder Seiya Suzuki slides safely into second base with a double during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Truist Park on May 15. (Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SPORTS)

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Cubs' Suzuki Returns After Being Sidelined by an Injury 

Chicago Cubs right fielder Seiya Suzuki missed nearly a full month of games due to a right oblique strain before returning to action on May 11. He went 2-for-5 in his first game back in a 10-0 road loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

On Wednesday, May 15, Suzuki had another 2-for-5 performance, slapping a first-inning double to right field and bashing an eighth-inning home run over the left-center field fence against the Atlanta Braves. It was Suzuki's fourth homer of the season and his first since April 13, his next-to-last game before being placed on the injured list. The visiting Cubs won 7-1.

Suzuki is batting .282, including five doubles and 15 RBIs, in 21 games in the 2024 season.

Fan favorite Shohei Ohtani holds a resolution proclaiming May 17 "Shohei Ohtani Day" at Los Angeles City Hall on May 17, 2024. (Courtesy of the Los Angeles Dodgers/via KYODO)

Dodgers Superstar Smacks 13th Homer on 'Shohei Ohtani Day'

Friday, May 17 provided a vivid reminder of Shohei Ohtani's vital role for the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

The two-time American League MVP blasted a two-run home run, his 13th of the 2024 MLB season, in the third inning to give the Dodgers a 3-0 lead. He then scored the tiebreaking run in the seventh, putting LA ahead 4-3 en route to a 7-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds at Dodger Stadium.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Ohtani's homer was an impressive display of power hitting.

"The ball comes off hot, but when he goes to left field the right way, he spins the ball the right way and that's why there's more carry as well," Roberts said, according to The Associated Press. "When he takes a good swing on a ball the other way, I'm not surprised it goes out."

On the same day, the Los Angeles City Council announced that May 17 will be "Shohei Ohtani Day" for the entirety of his tenure with the Dodgers. Ohtani is in the first year of a 10-year contract.

Ohtani Continues to Challenge for the Triple Crown

The Dodgers designated hitter leads MLB in batting (.358) through games of May 17. He's tied for the MLB lead in homers (13) with Kyle Tucker of the Houston Astros and Gunnar Henderson of the Baltimore Orioles. Ohtani has 32 RBIs, nine behind MLB leader Marcell Ozuna of the Atlanta Braves.

Based on his extraordinary talent, work ethic and success as a hitter, it would not be beyond the realm of possibility that Ohtani could contend for a Triple Crown (for batting average, home runs and RBIs) this season, his first in the National League.

In 2012, Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera became the first MLB player to win the Triple Crown since Boston Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, when he led the American League with a .326 batting average, tied for first in homers (44, sharing the lead with Minnesota Twins legend Harmon Killebrew) and 121 RBIs. Cabrera led the AL with a .330 batting average, smacked 44 homers and drove in 139 runs.

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Celtic FC's Daizen Maeda scores a first-half goal against Kilmarnock in a Scottish Premiership match on May 5 in Kilmarnock, Scotland. (KYODO)

Soccer

Celtic FC Extend Championship Reign in Scottish Premiership

Daizen Maeda had a first-half goal in Celtic FC's 5-0 rout of host Kilmarnock in a Scottish Premiership match on Wednesday, May 15.

The victory clinched Celtic FC's third consecutive league title, their first under manager Brendan Rogers, who replaced Ange Postecoglou after the 2022-23 campaign.

Maeda and his teammates have one game remaining in the season.

In 37 Premiership matches to date, Celtic have 28 wins, six draws and three defeats for a league-best 90 points. Second-place Rangers are six points adrift with 27 wins, three draws and seven defeats.

"It feels great," Celtic manager Brendon Rodgers said, according to Kyodo News. "It's obviously been a lot of managing over the course of the season in various aspects, but we've just got better and better, and under the pressure of the last couple of months the players have been absolutely brilliant."

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Japan's Mayu Ishikawa in action against Turkey in a FIVB Women's Volleyball Nations League match against Turkey on May 15 in Antalya, Turkey. (VOLLYBALL WORLD)

Volleyball

Japan Women Open with Three Straight Victories in Volleyball Nations League

Seeking to nab one of five available spots for the 12-team women's volleyball competition at the 2024 Paris Olympics, Japan is off to an excellent start in the pool phase of the 2024 FIVB Women's Volleyball Nations League.

In its tourney opener, Japan held off world No 1 Turkey 25-23, 25-21, 23-25, 20-25, 15-11 before a spirited crowd of nearly 9,700-plus spectators in Antalya, Turkey, on Wednesday, May 15.

Sarina Koga paced Japan with 31 points, including 27 kills, and fellow outside hitter Mayu Ishikawa scored 20 points.

World No 8 Japan, coached by Masayoshi Manabe, improved to 2-0 with a three-game win (25-13, 25-15, 25-15) over Bulgaria a day later.

Captain Koga and company followed that convincing performance with a 25-21, 25-15, 25-22 triumph over Germany on Friday.

The Women's Volleyball Nations League continues until June 30.

After four seasons with Allianz Milano in Italy's SuperLega, volleyball star Yuki Ishikawa is joining Sir Susa Vim Perugia on a two-year deal. Ishikawa poses in his new uniform on May 17 in Tokyo's Minato Ward. (KYODO)

Veteran Star Ishikawa Joins Italian Club Perugia

Yuki Ishikawa, a dynamic veteran player who spent the past four seasons with Allianz Milano has joined another club in Italy's SuperLega. Ishikawa will now wear the uniform of 2023-24 SuperLega champion Sir Susa Vim Perugia.

An announcement was made on Tuesday, May 14.

Three days later, Ishikawa, a 28-year-old outside hitter, spoke about the significance of his move to Perugia at a news conference in Tokyo.

"This is a big step forward. There is a chance in front of me to reach a goal ― to be the world's No.1 player," Ishikawa was quoted as saying by NHK.

Looking ahead to playing for Perugia, Ishikawa also commented on his eagerness to reunite with Angelo Lorenzetti, whom he called a "great coach," Volleyball World reported.

Lorenzetti was Ishikawa's first SuperLega coach when he suited up for Parmareggio Modena in the 2014-15 season.

"I am very happy to play on his team again, [and] I would like to show him that I have grown a lot here in Italy since I was 19," Ishikawa said, according to Volleyball World.

Ishikawa is the captain of the Japan men's national team, which will compete at the Paris Olympics.

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Chisato Iwai holds the winner's trophy after her three-stroke victory at the RKB Mitsui Matsushima Ladies tournament on May 12 at Fukuoka Country Club. (©SANKEI)

Golf 

Iwai Claims Second JLPGA Title of 2024

Chisato Iwai defended her RKB Mitsui Matsushima Ladies title on Sunday, May 12 in Fukuoka.

Iwai finished at 12-under 204. She improved her score each day, starting the JLPGA Tour tournament with a 3-under 69, followed by a 68 and a 67.

Saiki Fujita and Miyuu Yamashita were tied for second at 9-under 207 at Fukuoka Country Club.

In May 2023, Iwai won this tournament with an 11-under 205, carding consecutive rounds of 66, 74 and 65.

With 11 tournaments held so far this season, Iwai is tied for the JLPGA Tour lead in victories (two) with Rio Takeda and Ai Suzuki.

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Junto Nakatani is 27-0 with 20 knockouts in his pro boxing career. (KYODO)

Boxing

WBC Bantamweight Champ Nakatani to Defend Title on July 20

Junto Nakatani, the WBC bantamweight champion, is set to make his first title defense against Filipino Vincent Astrolabio on July 20 at Tokyo's Ariake Arena.

The WBC announced the date for the fight on Thursday, May 16.

Nakatani, 26, captured the world title belt with a sixth-round technical knockout of Mexican champion Alexandro Santiago on February 24 at Ryogoku Kokugikan in the Japanese capital.

With the win, Nakatani improved to 27-0 (20 knockouts). He previously fought in the flyweight and super flyweight divisions, claiming WBO titles in both, before moving up to bantamweight. 

The 27-year-old Astrolabio (19-0, four KOs) is the WBC's top-ranked challenger.

Astrolabio's team is fired up about the title shot.

"We are always ready and we are training," Nonoy Neri, Astrolabio's head coach, said, according to GMA News Online. 

He added, "We are not going to waste this opportunity, [and] we hope to win this fight for Filipinos."

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Yuto Horigome competes in a men's street skateboarding Olympic qualifier on May 15 in Shanghai. (KYODO)

Skateboarding 

Horigome Endures Disappointing Performance at Olympic Qualifier

In Shanghai, reigning Olympic men's street skateboarding champion Yuto Horigome failed to qualify for the semifinal round in a qualifier series event in Shanghai on Thursday, May 16.

Horigome finished 17th in the first round, one place shy of booking a spot in the semifinals. He had 81.88 points and needed 0.07 more to participate in the 16-man semifinals.

The 25-year-old could not hide his disappointment after the results were announced.

"I couldn't skate all that well," Horigome told reporters, according to Kyodo News. 

He then said, "I didn't get the score I was anticipating."

Can Horigome still qualify to compete at the Paris Olympics?

He faces an uphill challenge. Horigome is now ranked fourth among Japanese men.

Compatriot Sora Shirai is the world's top-ranked men's street skateboarding athlete. World No 5 is Kairi Netsuke. Horigome, ranked No 7, is fourth among Japanese men in the world rankings. 

A national squad is permitted to name a maximum of three entrants for the Olympics for this event.

Which means time is running out for Horigome, who has already participated in seven qualifiers.

His final chance will come at the upcoming qualifier in Budapest from June 20-23.

B.League
Chiba Jets swingman Christopher Smith drives to the basket in the firsts quarter as Ryukyu Golden Kings forward Vic Law defends in Game 1 of a B.League playoff semifinal series on May 18 at Okinawa Arena. Smith scored a game-high 19 points in the Jets' 95-62 victory. (B.LEAGUE)(

Briefly…

In Game 1 of the B.League's best-of-three semifinals, the Chiba Jets hammered the reigning champion Ryukyu Golden Kings 95-62 on Saturday, May 18 at Okinawa Arena. Chiba outscored the hosts 30-14 in the second quarter and 25-12 in the fourth. The Jets, who made 13 steals, scored 25 points from turnovers. Ryukyu finished with 21 turnovers.

The Golden Kings bounced back with an 81-63 win in Game 2 on Sunday.

Also Saturday, the Hiroshima Dragonflies topped the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins 79-75 in Game 1 in the other pro basketball semifinal series. The Dragonflies trailed 45-31 at halftime, held the Diamond Dolphins to three points in the third quarter and took a 55-48 lead into the final period. 

On Sunday, Nagoya rebounded with an 84-77 win in Game 2.

Saitama Wild Knights' Damian de Allende in action against the Yokohama Canon Eagles in the first half of a Japan Rugby League One playoff semifinal match on May 18 in Tokyo. (KYODO)

Elsewhere, the Japan Rugby League One semifinals started on Saturday. The Saitama Wild Knights rallied to beat the Yokohama Canon Eagles 20-17 at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground. How was the match decided? Damian Ellende's try in the 59th minute put the Wild Knights ahead 18-17, and teammate Rikiya Matsuda's successful conversion accounted for the final score.

On Sunday, Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo (14-1-1 in the regular season) defeated Tokyo Sungoliath 28-20 in the second semifinal to earn a place in the League One championship match against the Wild Knights (16-0) on May 26 at National Stadium.


Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven

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