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[NPB NOTEBOOK] Can Munetaka Murakami Bounce Back? Will the Giants Rebound Under Shinnosuke Abe?

As the new NPB season approaches, there are plenty of interesting storylines to follow, including how the reigning champion Hanshin Tigers play from the get-go.

There will be plenty of intriguing storylines as we enter the new NPB season, which kicks off on March 29.

Among those is how will the Yomiuri Giants perform under new manager Shinnosuke Abe? How will the Orix Buffaloes adjust in the absence of ace pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto? And will the Japan Series champion Hanshin Tigers be able to repeat?

Another question fans will be asking entering the season is this: Can Munetaka Murakami bounce back from, at least by his standards, a modest 2023 campaign?

Murakami was on top of the baseball world in 2022 when he led the Central League with 56 home runs, 134 RBIs and a .318 batting average to win the Triple Crown while helping his Tokyo Yakult Swallows to a second straight Central League pennant.

After that, he received a three-year contract and spoke of possibly moving to Major League Baseball when it expired.

Murakami played for Japan at the 2023 World Baseball Classic in March. While he struggled at the plate early on in the tournament, he came alive late with a semifinal-winning ninth-inning double and a game-tying homer in the final that helped Japan win the title.

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Munetaka Murakami fields a grounder on February 7. (KYODO)

Murakami Targets Another Triple Crown

Whether it was a post-WBC hangover or a nagging injury is unclear, but Murakami struggled once the 2023 regular season started and the Swallows finished a disappointing fifth.

In 2023, Murakami hit 31 regular season homers and drove in 84 runs, 50 fewer than the previous year. While those numbers aren't bad, they seemed anticlimactic for the 24-year-old slugger.

Now in spring training for the Swallows, Murakami is vowing to get back to his 2022 form.

"I want to win another Triple Crown," Murakami was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. "And, if I am able, I think the team can win another pennant."

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Yomiuri Giants manager Shinnosuke Abe, in his first season at the helm, speaks to reporters on February 4 in Miyazaki. (KYODO)

Giant Hopes for the NPB Season

After two straight seasons of missing the postseason, the Yomiuri Giants finally had enough of manager Tatsunori Hara and replaced him with former catcher Abe.

As is the case with all Yomiuri teams, the pressure will be on Abe to produce results from Day 1.

Former Yomiuri and New York Yankees great Hideki Matsui has been seen at the Giants camp in Miyazaki offering his advice to the team's hitters. 

The Giants will celebrate their 90th anniversary this season. They are hoping to turn things around and reward their loyal fans with some postseason success.

To be honest, the pitching staff is a bit thin. There are no big name aces like Yoshinobu Yamamoto or Roki Sasaki. Their best pitcher last season was Shosei Togo, who went 12-5 with a 2.35 ERA and 141 strikeouts.

The offense will be powered by two outstanding hitters in Kazuma Okamoto and Yoshihiro Maru. Former major leaguer Rougned Odor has been brought in to hopefully provide some spark.

Abe clearly has his work cut out for him. It won't be easy, but at least the team has turned the corner from the Hara era.

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Chiba Lotte Marines pitcher Roki Sasaki participates in a bullpen session on February 5 in Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture. (KYODO)

It's just a shoe!

Ibata Has Eye on Sasaki

Sasaki looks set to get some more international experience when Samurai Japan plays in the Premier12 tournament in November.

Japan national team manager Hirokazu Ibata said recently he plans to call up the 22-year-old Chiba Lotte Marines right-hander for the event.

Sasaki helped Japan win the 2023 World Baseball Classic and has said he wants to pursue a career in Major League Baseball.

The Premier12 tournament features the top teams in the world as determined by the World Baseball Softball Confederation rankings and will be held from November 10-24, with the championship game played at Tokyo Dome.

South Korea won the inaugural tournament in 2015 and Japan won the second edition four years later.

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Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles starter Masahiro Tanaka fires a pitch on February 4 in Kin, Okinawa Prefecture. (KYODO)

Pay Cut for Tanaka

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka took a 45% pay cut for the 2024 season.

The former New York Yankees pitcher, who is 35, posted a 7-11 record with a 4.91 ERA in 24 games in 2023 for the Eagles, who finished fifth in the Pacific League. 

He will make $1.77 million USD (¥266 million JPY) for the 2024 season.

"I haven't been able to produce results," Tanaka told Kyodo News. "But I believe I can still do well."

Tanaka has had a losing record in each of his three seasons back in Japan after spending seven years with the Yankees.

He is just three wins shy of 200 in his career split between Japan and the majors and has vowed to reach the milestone as soon as possible.

"I am aware of expectations from many people," added Tanaka. "I'll do my best with every pitch and each game."

Tanaka underwent arthroscopic surgery in late October to clean up his right elbow. He said his elbow feels better and that he aims to be in the starting rotation from the beginning of the season.

Olympic Showdown?

Could we see a best-on-best baseball tournament at the Summer Olympics in 2028 with Japan squaring off against the top players from the United States, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico?

It hasn't happened yet but according to a recent story in The Athletic, it's possible.

According to the story, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee briefed Major League Baseball owners about the possibility recently.

Casey Wasserman, Los Angeles organizing committee chairman, detailed four possibilities to make participating in the 2028 Olympics more appealing for MLB teams.

One suggestion was a small six-to eight-team tournament with a brief five-or six day competition in mid-July.

Other suggestions include shortening MLB's regular season and canceling the All-Star Game.

Up until now, MLB has been reluctant to suspend its season in order for its players to take part in the Olympics. 

But a short tournament as the one proposed wouldn't take much longer than the All-Star break. 

This is something everyone wants to see. 

The NHL recently announced it was returning to the Olympics and hockey fans couldn't be more excited. In addition, the NBA also allows its top players to take part in the Summer Games although there are no scheduling conflicts to contend with.

The WBC is great but there is something special about competing for your country in the Olympics. And imagine Shohei Ohtani playing for Japan in his home ballpark Dodger Stadium along with numerous NPB standouts.

As they say in Hollywood, you couldn't write a better script.

Hideki Irabu in an April 1998 file photo. (REUTERS)

Remembering Irabu

There is a new review about a 2013 book on Hideki Irabu. Written in Japanese, the book’s translated title in English is "Hideki Irabu, The Man Who Loved Baseball Too Much." It is written by Don Nomura, Irabu's former agent.

The book review, which appears on the stellar blog Hanshin Tigers English News, details how the book discusses how Irabu was very much a man misunderstood.

According to the review, Nomura felt there were many misconceptions created about Irabu, mostly by the local Japanese media who portrayed him as temperamental.

Nomura was also the agent for Hideo Nomo and the book goes into detail on comparing the process that each man took to get to the majors. Nobody would know better than Nomura.

Irabu played in Japan for the Lotte Orions/Chiba Lotte Marines and Hanshin Tigers. After that he went on to have an often tumultuous career in MLB for the New York Yankees, Montreal Expos and Texas Rangers.

Tragically, he was found dead in his home in Los Angeles on July 27, 2011. He was reported to have hanged himself. Irabu left behind a wife and two children.

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Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles on SportsLook.

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