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Ramirez sets record in reaching milestone

by Jason Coskrey

Earlier this year reigning Central League MVP Alex Ramirez insisted the best he had to offer in 2009 was still yet to come.

As he showed in dramatic fashion on Wednesday, “Big Daddy” has gotten his swagger back.

Ramirez put himself among 103 other Japanese baseball greats by collecting the 1,500th hit of his career in Japan during the sixth inning of the Yomiuri Giants’ 7-4 victory over the Chunichi Dragons at Nagoya Dome. Ramirez recorded his milestone hit with a leadoff single into center field off pitcher Yudai Kawaii.

Ramirez reached the mark in style, hitting his 21st homer of the season in his first at-bat and later driving in a run with a double for hit No. 1,501 in the seventh. Ramirez went 4-for-4 with three RBIs to help push the Dragons 4 1/2 games behind the front-running Giants in the standings.

That performance, coupled with his 3-for-5 night in a 4-2 win over Chunichi on Thursday, helped push him past infielder Michihiro Ogasawara for the team lead with a .320 average this season. He’s had at least three hits in each of the past three games and has hit safely in seven straight contests.

Ramirez reached 1,500 faster than any other player in Japanese baseball history, needing just 1,236 games to reach the goal. He beat former Lotte player Leron Lee for the record by just a single game. The veteran outfielder is the third foreign player to hit the milestone following Tuffy Rhodes (1,766) and Lee (1,579).

Much more than just a slugger, though he has 277 career homers in Japan, Ramirez has a career average of .304 (through Wednesday), which is currently the 14th highest in Japanese baseball history and third among active players.

He’s had at least 143 hits in each of his first eight seasons in Japan and has 145 after 111 game of the 2009 campaign.

Ramirez got off to a slow start this year, but put in some extra time in the video room and in the batting cage. After making the necessary adjustments to his batting mechanics after noticing some irregularities on film, the Giants star is starting to round into form as the race for the Central League pennant heats up.

The slugger has been at his best when the Giants have needed him most this year, batting .472 with seven home runs and 18 RBIs against the second-place Dragons, who are the main threat to derailing Yomiuri’s dream of a third straight CL title.

The Dragons’home stadium, Nagoya Dome, has been like a home-away-from-home for Ramirez, who is batting .486 with two homers and nine RBIs in eight games there.

Ramirez will try to help the Giants increase their lead in the CL on Friday when the team travels to Koshien Stadium to face the rival Hanshin Tigers.

Three’s company: The Tohoku Rakuten Eagles may have Japanese baseball’s best 1-2 punch in pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma (10-5) and Masahiro Tanaka (11-4).

Since the All-Star break, third-year pitcher Satoshi Nagai has often been sandwiched between the Eagles’ two star pitchers in the rotation. Nagai’s play as of late, however, could turn the dynamic duo into a dangerous threesome, especially come playoff time.

Nagai won his ninth game of the year in brilliant fashion on Wednesday, going on the road and tossing a two-hit shutout against the Seibu Lions, just a day after Iwakuma and Seibu ace Hideaki Wakui staged a pitcher’s duel at Seibu Dome.

Nagai (9-6) struck out eight and walked two to help the Eagles regain their half-game advantage over Seibu for the third and final spot in the Pacific League Climax Series.

It was the second straight impressive performance for the Gunma native, who on Aug. 20 faced the PL-leading Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters (holders of Japanese baseball’s highest team average at .286) and threw seven innings of one-run ball, striking out seven and walking none to earn the victory.

If the current rotation holds, Nagai would likely get the ball against the Lions again when the teams meet at Kleenex Stadium in early September.