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Imae, Kiyota make case for Japan Series MVP award consideration

by Kaz Nagatsuka

CHIBA — Obviously, it’s too early to talk about who will be the Japan Series MVP award.

But after watching the way the Marines sink the Chunichi Dragons in Tuesday’s Game 3, maybe it’s not too crazy to start arguing.

So far, two of Chiba Lotte’s strongest candidates for the accolade are Toshiaki Imae and Ikuhiro Kiyota, who helped the club take a 2-1 lead in the series entering Game 4 on Wednesday.

Numbers-wise, Imae, the 2005 Japan Series MVP, has an edge over Kiyota. Imae had hit .500 and notched an RBI in each of the three games, while Kiyota had a .364 average and drove in two runs.

However, Kiyota might have made a greater impression among baseball observers. The rookie stunned the fans with a solo homer in Game 1 and had a heroic night in Game 3, hitting a a go-ahead, base-clearing triple.

Asked how he feels about being called Mr. Japan Series, Imae smilingly responded before Wednesday’s game, “It feels good. But maybe Kiyota is going to take it away from me.”

Indeed, what Kiyota has done in this postseason is just phenomenal. The 24-year-old, who was drafted by the club in the fourth round last fall, has belted three home runs in the playoffs. He only had two dingers during the season.

Kiyota said that he doesn’t really know why he has raised his game all of a sudden. But if there is a secret, he added, maybe it’s because he’s been trying not to go all-out at the plate.

“It’s too early to think about it,” Kiyota humbly said about the possibility of being named the series MVP after Game 3.

“I’ll only be focusing on chipping in for the team’s victories.”

Ready for Nagoya?: Chiba Lotte starter Yoshihisa Naruse worked on fielding bunts along with Shunsuke Watanabe in front of the team’s dugout before Game 4.

There’s speculation that Naruse, who picked up the win in Game 1, will pitch in Thursday’s Game 5 at Chiba Marine or Game 6 at Nagoya Dome on Saturday.

Both managers — Norifumi Nishimura of the Marines and Hiromitsu Ochiai of the Dragons — agreed not to announce their starters prior to each game before the series.

The extra defensive preparation could mean that the southpaw Naruse takes the mound in Nagoya, where the designated hitter isn’t used. But who knows? The team could be trying to deceive the Dragons.

Can’t stay at home: Like many of the loyal Marines fans that traveled along with the men in black on the road, the Dragons brought some enthusiastic supporters to Chiba Marine Stadium.

Yoshiko Sasaki was one of them. She couldn’t be stuck in front of a TV set in Nagoya.

Instead the longtime Dragons fan jumped into her car and made the long drive to Chiba to root for the Central League club.

The 31-year-old company employee said before Game 4 that she would meet up with a friend, another Chunichi fan living in Ibaraki Prefecture, and attend the game.

Sasaki said that she went to Game 1 in Nagoya, and then came to Chiba to see Games 3 and 4 before returning to Nagoya on Thursday.

“In both Game 1 and 3, in which I attended, (the Dragons) took losses as Kiyota gave us damage.”

Matsui a free agent

LOS ANGELES (Kyodo) Los Angeles Angels outfielder Hideki Matsui became eligible for free agency along with Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hiroki Kuroda and Orioles pitcher Koji Uehara on Tuesday.

The Angels aren’t expected to re-sign Matsui.

This year, 142 players are free to sell their wares on the open market, and can begin talks with their current teams over the next five days.

According to baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, players who have been in the league for six years and do not have contracts for next season automatically became free agents after the final out of the World Series.

Players can begin talks with other teams after holding negotiations with their current clubs.