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Foreign players showing the way among stats leaders

by Wayne Graczyk

Don’t look now, but foreign players could possibly sweep the six offensive titles in Japanese baseball this season. Through games of Aug. 10, non-Japanese names were on top of four of the categories and right behind in the other two.

Rick Short of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles was leading the Pacific League in batting with a .338 average, and Tuffy Rhodes, who turns 39 next week, was on top of the home runs and runs batted in leader lists. The Orix Buffaloes slugger was leading both leagues with 82 RBIs and pulled ahead of Takeshi Yamasaki of the Eagles in the home run derby, 37 to 36.

If Rhodes keeps up his current pace, he would end the season with 52 homers and 116 RBIs, and he’s fourth in the PL batting race with a .317 average.

Seibu Lions first baseman Alex Cabrera is also contending for the PL batting title with a .324 average, good for second behind Short.

In the Central League, Chunichi Dragons power man Tyrone Woods topped the circuit with 27 homers and was one off the RBI lead. He had 73 in that department and trailed leader Shinnosuke Abe, the Yomiuri Giants catcher who had 74. Woods’ team has five games more to play than Abe’s club before the season ends.

In the CL batting race, hot-hitting Alex Ramirez was second behind his Yakult Swallows teammate Norichika Aoki. Rami checked in with a .338 average to Aoki’s .347.

Meanwhile, two other foreign players are going after another record in Japanese baseball — or should I say it is going after them? Orix Buffaloes third baseman Greg LaRocca and the man who replaced him on the Yakult Swallows gaikokujin roster, outfielder Aaron Guiel, have been hit by pitches 21 times each this season. The Japan record for “dead balls” in a single year is 25.

La Rocca was also plunked by a slow curve thrown by Yomiuri right-hander Koji Uehara in this summer’s first all-star game at Tokyo Dome on July 20 and, he says, if and when he breaks the mark with a 26th HPB, he expects a stadium girl to run out and present him with a bouquet of flowers.

Hey — a record is a record, right?

Now that the Boston Red Sox have acquired relief pitcher Eric Gagne, the club has double set-up men in the right-hander Gagne and Japanese lefty Hideki Okajima. Tokyo sports newspapers are dubbing Gagne and Okajima the “GO” twins but, if you add closer Jonathan Papelbon, you get “GOP” and wonder if these guys might be Republicans.

This whole relief staff initial thing began with the Hanshin Tigers “JFK” trio of Jeff Williams, Kyuji Fujikawa and Tomoyuki Kubota. By the way, if you think Okajima’s earned run average is super at 0.98, how about Williams’? Jeff’s ERA through games of Aug. 10 stood at a minuscule 0.19, as he’s only given up one earned run all year in 48 innings of work.

Williams says he’s not trying to set a low-ERA record and is just taking one appearance at a time. “One bad outing could change all that,” he pointed out, realizing the ERA could go up quickly because of the relatively low number of innings he’s logged.

The lefty from Australia is not the only CL reliever with an ERA of less than one run per nine innings. Fellow JFK trio member Fujikawa had posted a 0.81, and Yokohama BayStars fireballer Marc Kroon’s ERA was 0.66. In the Pa League, Fukuoka Softbank Hawks closer Takahiro Mahara also registered a 0.81 figure. Sugoi!

As the Giants hold on to first place in the Central division, keep in mind Yomiuri first baseman Lee Seung Yeop reportedly has it in his four-year contract that he can leave the Kyojin for the major leagues at any time — as soon as he helps lead the Giants to a Japan Series championship.

The Korean slugger hit 41 home runs last year, but he’s actually fourth in homers this season among players in that power-packed lineup.

Through Thursday’s games, Lee had 20 four-baggers, but teammates with more are Abe (26), third baseman Michihiro Ogasawara (25) and rightfielder Yoshinobu Takahashi (24).

Power-packed, indeed; the Giants have hit 140 homers as a team, and no other club in either league has reached triple figures.

Finally this week, in response to our last column, two readers sent in details of other players who were injured after being hit by a line drive or a bat.

Seth Cervantes of Tomakomai in Hokkaido recalled when Yomiuri Giants left-handed pitcher Hisanori Takahashi was struck in the face by a foul ball while sitting in the visitors’ dugout during a game at Jingu Stadium against the Yakult Swallows on April 5, 2006. Takahashi had to be taken out on a stretcher, and it was reported he suffered a broken cheek bone.

Jim Boyden in Shengang, Taiwan, pointed out that line drives are not the only dangers in baseball and remembered what happened to Steve Yeager of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1976. While waiting in the on-deck circle during a game, Yeager had his esophagus pierced by a piece of wood that flew off Bill Russell’s shattered bat while Russell was at the plate. Ouch!

Reports said Yeager had nine pieces of wood removed from his neck in a 98-minute operation and, following his recovery, he started wearing a throat protector flap that hung from his catcher’s mask.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at wayne@JapanBall.com