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Imae played major role in Japan Series

by Kaz Nagatsuka

NAGOYA — What a big-time player Toshiaki Imae is.

No one could argue that he did not deserve his second Japan Series MVP award after witnessing his phenomenal performance.

After Chiba Lotte grabbed its first Japan Series title in five years with an 8-7 extra-inning win over the Chunichi Dragons in Game 7 at Nagoya Dome on Sunday night, Imae, beaming his signature smile, gave the reporters his honest feelings about earning another MVP trophy.

“I’m so happy to win the MVP award, because, unless we had not won the Japan Series title, obviously I wouldn’t have earned it,” the Marines third baseman said after hitting .444 and tying teammates Ikuhiro Kiyota and Tadahito Iguchi for the series lead in RBIs (six).

While Kiyota, Iguchi and Shunsuke Watanabe seemed to have a chance to gain the best player accolade in the Nippon Professional Baseball championships series, Imae clinched it with a four-hit, one-RBI performance in the decisive seventh game.

The 27-year-old was a catalyst for the Marines in the 2005 Japan Series, when they swept the Hanshin Tigers. He had a .667 average and was chosen the series MVP.

But the 2010 MVP has a different value, Imae claimed. What he went through after the ’05 championship — whether it was good or bad — has made him a better player.

“I was completely clueless about what I was doing in the ’05 championship as I had just started coming through,” Imae said. “And then, afterward, I had tough times with injuries and struggling in the game.

“But as manager Nishimura took the helm this year I had a new start and ended up having such a satisfactory year. And I’m extremely pleased I was given this MVP award in the very end.”

Imae, a native of Kyoto Prefecture, notched the third-highest batting average in the Pacific League with a career-best .331 average during the regular season.

While the Marines were on the verge of not making the postseason — they couldn’t afford to lose even once in their final three games of the regular season — Imae hit a go-ahead two-run homer in the first inning of the regular-season finale.

And in the Japan Series, Imae was a major factor for Chiba Lotte’s triumph. He drove in the game-winning runs in Games 1 and 5.

Asked why he always raises his game on the big stage, Imae responded with a simple but articulate answer: he wants to be exposed to the public.

“On such a big stage like this, you get more attention,” Imae said. “So I was so excited to be out there.”

In all, Imae’s biggest motivation may have been his son, Rikuto.

“You know, he’s 5 years old now,” Imae said after Game 4. “And he’s finally realized what baseball is. Every time I go home after a game, he’s rooting for Lotte.”