Matt Murton is no longer known as just a carrot-topped player but also an exceptional hitter for the Hanshin Tigers.
Murton, an outfielder in his first year in Japan, played in all 69 games for the Kansai club (through Thursday), leading the Central League with a .355 batting average and 105 hits. He tops Hanshin with a .407 on-base percentage, 54 runs scored and nine stolen bases as well.
Murton is on pace for 219 hits this season, which would overtake Ichiro Suzuki for the Nippon Professional Baseball record achieved in 1994, though Ichiro did it in a 130-game season.
“It’s been good,” the 28-year-old Murton said. “There’s definitely been adjustments along the way. But baseball here is very competitive, and I’ve really had a good time here so far. Playing for the Tigers is a lot of fun.”
The last gaikokujin player on the Tigers to hit above .300 in his first year with the club was Tom O’Malley (.307) in 1991.
Playing for Hanshin, which has one of the most enthusiastic but demanding fan bases in the nation, is often a great burden for Tigers players, and it is no different for foreigners.
Murton, however, seems to not be bothered by that and is enjoying every moment at Koshien.
“My first team in the big leagues was the Chicago Cubs. I would consider the team one of the top four, five well-followed teams in the United States,” said Murton, a first-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2003. “And since coming over here, it’s been a similar environment. It’s comforting and a lot of fun.”
Murton began the season as Hanshin’s leadoff man and later was moved by skipper Akinobu Mayumi to No. 3in the batting order because of his terrific hitting in clutch situations (he has already come up with two grand slams this season). Murton has driven in 43 runs, which puts him among the team’s leaders.
For the Tigers, they’re truly blessed to have two successful hitters in Murton and Craig Brazell, who joined Hanshin last year.
Asked what the secrets are behind his immediate success in Japan, the devout Murton humbly responded, “I think God plays a big part.”
Brazell, however, explained that Murton has thrived in a completely new workplace because he “listens a lot.”
“He wants to learn, he wants to know (the) situation, he studies pitchers well,” said the slugger Brazell, who is tied for the league lead in home runs (26) and is second in RBIs (56).
Brazell added that the club’s warm atmosphere helped Murton adjust to the game in Japan.
“We’ve got a lot of veterans on this team,” Brazell said. “They’re very open and talk to you to try to help you as much as they can.”
Among the experienced veterans on Hanshin, Kenji Johjima’s presence cannot be ignored.
“It’s huge for me to have him around,” Murton said. “He’s played in the United States and knows what it’s like in the major leagues. He knows the life in a foreign country and how to deal with cultural differences. And also he understands playing in Japan.”
The Tigers trail the league-leading Yomiuri Giants by four games, and are arguably considered the team with the best chance to chase down the reigning league and NPB champions.
And certainly, as much as Murton needs tips and advice from his teammates, his teammates need his reliable bat to make it happen.