Tokyo Yakult Swallows third baseman Munetaka Murakami hit his 56th home run of the season on Monday, October 3 and also became the youngest player in Nippon Professional Baseball history to win the Triple Crown award.
Murakami connected for a solo homer to right in the seventh inning after going 13 games without a home run as the Central League champion Swallows beat the Yokohama DeNA BayStars 8-2 at Jingu Stadium.
The homer moved the 22-year-old native of Kumamoto Prefecture into sole possession of second place on the all-time single-season home run list, ahead of Japanese home run king Sadaharu Oh as well as Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera.
Wladimir Balentien holds the NPB record of 60, which he hit for the Swallows in 2013. Oh hit 55 home runs for the Yomiuri Giants in 1964 before being equaled by Rhodes of the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 2001 and Cabrera of the Seibu Lions in 2002.
“I was relieved that it (the 56th homer) finally arrived,” Murakami told Kyodo News. “Genuinely, I’m really happy to have bested the record of such great players.”
Murakami finished the season with a CL leading .318 batting average, 56 homers and 134 RBIs to become the first player to win the Triple Crown since Nobuhiko Matsunaka achieved the rare feat for the then-Daiei Hawks in 2004.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Murakami said. “I’m really pleased to have achieved it.”
Murakami had a comfortable lead in both home runs and RBIs. The only real question in pursuit of the Triple Crown was batting average. Murakami went 2-for-4 in the last game to hold off a late season charge by Chunichi Dragons outfielder Yohei Oshima, who batted .314.
Central League Playoff Picture Set
Shota Imanaga threw seven shutout innings on Saturday, October 1 as second-place Yokohama beat the Giants 1-0 to eliminate Yomiuri from the postseason.
As a result, the BayStars (73-68-2) will play host to the Tigers (68-71-4) in the Central League Climax Series First Stage, which gets underway on Saturday, October 8 at Yokohama Stadium. The Swallows will play the winner in the Climax Series Final Stage at Jingu Stadium.
"We’re challengers. The players have worked hard to extend their season and now I want them to enjoy it.”Hanshin Tigers manager Akihiro Yano
It is the first time in five years that the Giants have finished out of the playoffs in the so-called “B-Class.”
The Giants got off to a good start this season and were battling the Central League champion Swallows for the top spot early on while the Tigers were languishing in last place after one of the worst starts in team history.
So what happened? In a word: interleague.
Hanshin went 12-6 for the second-best record in interleague play. The Giants went 8-10, third worst.
The Giants never recovered after that.
That’s simply not good enough for a team that has all sorts of advantages, but don’t expect to see many changes.
Pacific League Season Ends in Dramatic Fashion
There was high drama on Sunday, October 2, the final day of the Pacific League schedule.
At the same time, the Hawks lost 5-3 to the Chiba Lotte Marines for their second straight defeat.
For their late-season stumble, the Hawks will have to face the Saitama Seibu Lions in the PL Climax Series First Stage, which also starts on October 8 at Fukuoka's PayPay Dome, with the winner going on to play Orix.
Eagles starter Masahiro Tanaka fires a pitch on October 2. (ⒸSANKEI)
One has to wonder if the end is near for Tanaka, who took the loss in Sunday’s game and finished the season with a 9-12 record and a 3.31 ERA.
Those aren’t embarrassing numbers by any means but the 33-year-old Tanaka is a far cry from the dominant pitcher that went a spectacular 24-0 for the Eagles in 2013 when the team won its sole Japan Series title.
Tanaka has a list of baseball accomplishments that is long and impressive, including seven mostly strong seasons with the New York Yankees.
As soon as the season was over, the Giants were reportedly said to be interested in signing former Hawks veteran Nobuhiro Matsuda.
The 39-year-old Matsuda announced he would leave the Pacific League team after this season.
The Giants’ modus operandi seems to be poaching talent from other teams or signing stars whose better days are behind them. Developing young talent has never been one of their strong suits.
Anyway, regardless of what you think of the Giants, with a record of 68-72, they simply didn’t deserve to be in the Climax Series.
Sayonara, Sapporo Dome
A near-capacity crowd of 41,138 showed up to say sayonara to the stadium that opened in 2001.
The Fighters enjoyed some good times at Sapporo Dome, winning the Japan Series in 2006 and 2016 and reaching the final in 2007, 2009 and 2012.
It was the park where MLB players Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani developed into the stars they are today, and where former Fighters manager Trey Hillman thrilled fans with his famous “Shinjirarenai” (unbelievable) catch phrase in their championship season of 2006.
Over the years there were many other sports events there, including three games during the 2002 World Cup, one of which saw David Beckham score the lone goal for England in a 1-0 win over Argentina.
The dome also hosted world cup skiing and a special stage of Rally Japan in 2008 and 2010.
Future Plans for Sapporo Dome
The stadium will still be used for J.League soccer games, but the Fighters will move to the brand new ES CON Field Hokkaido in Kitahiroshima near Chitose Airport.
The new stadium features a retractable roof and is designed specifically for baseball with a crowd capacity of 35,000.
After Fukuoka PayPay Dome it will be the only other baseball stadium in Japan with a retractable roof. In addition, it will feature a hotel that will allow guests to view the games similar to Rogers Centre in Toronto, home of the American League’s Blue Jays.
Truth be told, Sapporo Dome was not a great place to take in a ball game. The seating was a long way from the field and on a nice day it felt strange to be cooped up in a dark cavernous space.
The Fighters and their fans will no doubt enjoy baseball the way it should be played, in the great outdoors.
Shinjo to Remain Fighters Manager
Nipponham manager Tsuyoshi Shinjo said he will be back as manager for the 2023 season, despite the team finishing last in the PL standings (59-81-3).
Shinjo also said he will drop the “BIG BOSS” nickname from his uniform and just go with “Shinjo.”
Just my personal opinion, but I think Shinjo needs to focus more on what is happening on the field and less on his public persona.
Uchikawa to Call it a Career
One of the most popular players in NPB over the past two decades has decided to retire.
Swallows infielder Seiichi Uchikawa, who was best known as a member of the powerhouse Hawks, has announced that this season will be his last.
Uchikawa, 40, started his career with the BayStars in 2001. He then moved to the Hawks via free agency in 2011.
Uchikawa helped the Hawks win seven Japan Series championships.
Uchikawa moved to Yakult in 2021 but was used sparingly in that championship season. He was also a member of the Japan team that won the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
A native of Oita Prefecture, Uchikawa has played in just six games for the CL champion Swallows this season. He is a .302 hitter with 2,185 hits, 196 homers and 959 RBIs in 2,021 games.
“Baseball players live in a world in which you must have a place on the team,” Uchikawa told Kyodo News. “I’ve felt it is hard to continue.”
Return of the Suds
When the Swallows clinched their second straight CL pennant on September 25, they also brought back a longstanding NPB tradition: the beer shower (or biru kake).
With the Central League flag decided, a huge vinyl sheet was laid out on the field at Jingu Stadium before a large number of players enjoyed a liberal dousing of the frothy suds.
Last year when the Swallows won, the celebrations were toned down significantly in line with COVID-19 countermeasures.
Author: Jim Armstrong
The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for more than 25 years. You can find his articles here.