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Injuries affecting competition for batting, homer titles

by Wayne Graczyk

As the 2013 Japan pro baseball season enters its final month, recent injuries to the leading hitter in the Central League batting race and the Pacific League’s top home run hitter have thrown wide open the competition for those titles.

Chunichi Dragons third baseman Hector Luna appeared to be a shoo-in to win the CL batting championship just prior to the All-Star break in July. He had gotten off to a hot start and maintained a .400 average well into May. Luna sank below that mark, of course, but was still hitting .370 in early July, maintaining about a 40-point lead over the pack.

The Dragons were so pleased with his performance and the way he adjusted to Japanese baseball, the team made the unusual midseason move of extending his contract beyond this year.

He was selected to play in the All-Star series but missed it because of a sprained knee sustained in early July. By rule, he then had to sit out the first 10 games when regular-season play resumed. He saw action on the Dragons farm team and later returned to the varsity but hurt his other knee. He went home to the Dominican Republic and is expected to miss the remainder of this season.

As of Wednesday, he was still at the top of the CL batting statistics list next to a .350 average, but the following day his name disappeared because he fell below the minimum number of plate appearances necessary for qualification.

Luna’s absence opens the door for foreign sluggers Wladimir Balentien of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows (the league home run leader and new batting leader hitting .339) and Tony Blanco of the Yokohama BayStars (.333 and the CL’s top RBI man).

Others who could heat up and challenge for the batting crown include Yomiuri Giants players Shuichi Murata (.326) and Jose Lopez (.313), BayStars outfielder Nyjer Morgan (.314), Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe (.311) and Hanshin Tigers cleanup hitter Matt Murton (.308).

Commenting on the situation, Murton said, “It’s really too bad about Luna. He was having such a great season.” He also thought Balentien is now probably the favorite to win the batting title but, then again, it could go either way.

“If they start walking him, his average won’t go down much,” said Murton, “But, if he starts swinging at bad pitches, that could hurt him too.”

Meanwhile, Pacific League home run leader Sho Nakata of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters had his season ruined by a fractured hand after he was hit by a pitch in a game on Aug. 21. Nakata has hit 28 homers and was on a pace for 40, but he is expected to miss at least four weeks of action, so his season is probably done as well.

His teammate, the Cuban-born slugger Michel Abreu, is second in the home run derby with 27 as of Thursday. Other contenders are the league RBI leader, Hideto Asamura of the Seibu Lions who had 24, and Casey McGehee of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and Tadahito Iguchi of the Chiba Lotte Marines, both with 21.

Whoever wins the home run crown in the PL may wind up hitting only half as many as the Central League homer king, as Balentien continues to swing a hot homer hacker.

Of course the opposing Central League pitchers are going to be walking Balentien as he approaches the single-season Japanese baseball home run record of 55. However, don’t be so critical, assuming they are trying to prevent him from reaching 56 homers this month.

The fact is, Balentien has been so hot and has become such a dangerous hitter, they will be walking him to try to keep the Swallows off the scoreboard and avoid losing games. It would not be surprising to see Balentien issued free passes even with the bases loaded in certain situations.

It was on April 12, after he missed the first 12 games of the season due to injury, Balentien said at Tokyo Dome, “My goal is to hit 42 homers this year,” and that was two months before news broke about the old live baseball being back.

On July 9, he increased his expectations to 55, and his current pace is for 66.

Diamond Dust: Also on the Chunichi injured list besides Luna is the colorful team mascot Doala, who has a broken finger and cannot perform his popular tumbling act following the seventh inning of home games at Nagoya Dome.

At a recent press conference, Doala wrote (mascots don’t talk), “I will be fine and can do anything except the tumbling.”

He continues to appear on the ground, waving the Dragons team flag and riding a tricycle around the field, offering the team support — and he’s always smiling.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com