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[NPB NOTEBOOK] Munetaka Murakami is Taking His Place as One of the Greatest Hitters in NPB History

The Swallows cleanup hitter, at the tender age of 22, matches legendary slugger Sadaharu Oh and sets his sights on the single-season home run record.

Munetaka Murakami hit his 55th home run of the season on Tuesday, September 13 to equal the mark set by legendary slugger Sadaharu Oh in 1964 and move within five of Japan’s single-season record.

Murakami hit his 54th homer of the season in the fourth inning of a game against the Giants at Jingu Stadium to move within one of former Yomiuri star Oh, who held a share of the single-season record until 2013.

The Tokyo Yakult Swallows cleanup hitter then pulled even with Oh on a towering three-run blast in the ninth inning off Yomiuri reliever Taisei Ota.

The Giants won the game 9-7, but the two clouts by Murakami overshadowed Yomiuri’s win.

The significance of equaling Oh was not lost on Murakami, who wears uniform No. 55 no doubt in tribute to the mark set by the former Yomiuri great.

“It’s an amazing honor to be able to be tied with him,” Murakami told Kyodo News. “This is the result of the trial and error process as I worked to develop my batting style. That’s how I hit home runs.”

Wladimir Balentien (KYODO)

And Murakami is not done yet. The Central League-leading Swallows have 15 games left and the 22-year-old native of Kumamoto Prefecture has said he has his sights set on the NPB record of 60 set by Yakult’s Wladimir Balentien in 2013.

Background on Home Run Record

The pursuit of Oh’s mark of 55 was not always a straightforward proposition.

Until Balantien shattered the record, it seemed like Oh’s achievement would never be surpassed. 

Tuffy Rhodes of the Kintetsu Buffaloes equaled it in 2001 and Alex Cabrera of the Seibu Lions did the same a year later.

Both of those pursuits were reminiscent of 1985 when Randy Bass of the Hanshin Tigers reached 54 but was then infamously pitched around by the Oh-managed Giants presumably in order not to equal or break the manager’s record.

There were suspicions once again in both 2001 and 2002 when Oh managed the Pacific League’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and supposedly instructed his pitchers not to give Rhodes and Cabrera anything to hit. Oh denied it, saying only that “no pitcher wants to be the one to surrender the record home run.”

A lot has changed since then. Prior to Balentien comfortably breaking the record, Oh himself said he would be happy to see it broken and hoped it would be by a significant margin: it was.

Young and Great

Murakami has blossomed into a great power hitter at a very young age. Oh was 24 when he hit 55. Murakami is 22 and his career is just starting. Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees, who currently has 57 homers, is 30.

Last year, Murakami won the Central League MVP honors, helped the Swallows win a Japan Series championship and took home a gold medal from the baseball tournament at the Tokyo Olympics.

It’s hard to imagine topping that but he just may. In addition to leading the league in homers, Murakami is also comfortably tops in batting average (.337) and RBIs (132) as he bids to become the first winner of the Triple Crown award since Nobuhiko Matsunaka of the Daiei Hawks in 2004.

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Pacific League Pennant Race Heats Up

While the Swallows enjoy a seemingly comfortable six-game lead over the Yokohama DeNA BayStars in the Central League, things are a little tighter in the Pacific League.

The Hawks maintained a two-game lead over the hard-charging Orix Buffaloes on Thursday, September 15 with a 7-3 win over the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Veteran Tsuyoshi Wada, 41, allowed four hits and a walk over five scoreless innings to win his third straight start after the Hawks scored four early runs.

SoftBank has four games in hand on the second-place Buffaloes and five on the third-place Lions, so the Hawks are in a good position to claim the PL pennant.

The Hawks are the closest thing Japanese baseball has to a dynasty. They have won the Japan Series six times in the last eight years.

Bear Necessities

Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters manager Tsuyoshi Shinjo isn’t the only headline-grabbing presence at the team’s home stadium in Sapporo.

On Thursday, September 15 a bear was found sleeping under a tree near the North Gate of Sapporo Dome. 

There was a Sapporo 6 University Fall Tournament going on that day. The teams entered through the South Gate.

At approximately 7:50 AM, a male caller phoned police to tell them a bear was sleeping under a tree in the vicinity of Sapporo Dome’s North Gate.

Residents in the area were temporarily asked to remain indoors as police cars patrolled the area.

The Sapporo Dome is on the outskirts of Sapporo and surrounded by a wooded area. Bear sightings on the fringes of Sapporo are fairly common.

The three games on that day went ahead as scheduled. The bear remains at large.

As for the Fighters, they are in last place in the PL standings, 17½ games behind the Hawks and ready for a long hibernation this winter.

Sasaki Update

Chiba Lotte Marines pitcher Roki Sasaki allowed a run in five innings to earn the win and improve to 9-4 on Wednesday, September 14 in an 8-1 win over the Fighters.

He was pulled from the game after just 58 pitches.

The 20-year-old right-hander missed his previous turn in the Marines starting rotation after manager Tadahito Iguchi said he had not recovered sufficiently from his start on September 2.

It’s been an odd season for Sasaki. In April, he generated headlines on both sides of the Pacific when he became Japan’s youngest perfect game pitcher.

As impressive as that was, Sasaki has also had trouble maintaining a regular spot in the Marines’ rotation. It’s understandable that Lotte management would want to protect Sasaki but at some point they would like to see a little more consistency out of their young star.


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.

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