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Buffaloes’ Kaneko near-unanimous choice for Pacific League’s Best IX Awards

Kyodo

Chihiro Kaneko will need more space in a crowded trophy case after the winners of the Central and Pacific Leagues’ Best IX Awards were announced Thursday

The Orix Buffaloes’ ace, who won this year’s Sawamura Award as Japan’s outstanding starting pitcher as well as his first Golden Glove for fielding excellence, was a runaway winner in the 2014 voting, pulling in 232 of 243 votes cast by members of the media for the PL’s top pitcher.

Kaneko, who is in a commanding position to demand Orix to allow him to go to the major leagues this offseason, was one of 12 first-time winners on the honor roll, six in each league.

The 31-year-old right-hander went 16-5 this season in his 10th season with 199 strikeouts and a league-leading 1.98 ERA. The Buffaloes finished second, but crashed out of the postseason in the first stage.

“It feels great to win it at last,” Kaneko said in Okinawa ahead of the Japan national team’s exhibition against a team of visiting big leaguers. “It’s an individual award, but it’s not something you can accomplish without help from your teammates.

“I didn’t think I fit the image of a Best IX pitcher, a guy who wins a lot of games and gives his team a chance to win a championship, but that’s how it turned out this year.

“Of course, our team was wiped out early in the playoffs so even though I won this award, the frustration remains.”

Kaneko was one of three Buffaloes on the 10-man PL Best IX, joining first-time winner and his catcher Hikaru Ito, and four-time recipient Yoshio Itoi, who led all PL outfielders with 235 votes.

Outfielder Yuki Yanagita and shortstop Kenta Imamiya from the Japan Series champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks each won for the first time, as did third baseman Ginji Akaminai of Rakuten, while his Eagles teammate Kazuya Fujita won his second straight at second base.

A pair of Seibu Lions also bagged awards, first baseman Ernesto Mejia and designated hitter Takeya Nakamura, a four-time winner at third base. The two tied for the PL home run lead with 34 even though Mejia didn’t join the Lions until well after the season started and only played 106 games.

The final PL award went to Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters left fielder and Japan cleanup hitter Sho Nakata.

The most lopsided winner in the CL balloting was Hanshin Tigers shortstop Takashi Toritani, who collected 241 of 261 votes cast at that position.

Toritani, named to his fifth Best IX team, was joined by Tigers teammates Matt Murton, who won for the fourth time in the outfield, and first baseman Mauro Gomez, who took the prize in his first season in Japan.

The CL champion Yomiuri Giants put two players on the squad, second-year right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano, who won for the first time, and Shinnosuke Abe, who won for the ninth time. It may be the last time Abe is named the CL’s best catcher, since the Giants captain will move to first base full-time next season.

At the other end of the spectrum, the last-place Tokyo Yakult Swallows had two first-time winners, outfielder Yuhei Takai and second baseman Tetsuto Yamada.

The 22-year-old Yamada had 193 hits this season, the most ever for a right-handed Japanese hitter.

“My hitting won this award, but I have so many more areas I need to polish up if I am to improve, particularly my base running and fielding,” Yamada said.

“The best memory from this season is setting the hits record with a grand slam. It was a 3-0 count, and I put a good swing on it the way I wanted to and got the result I wanted. I was looking to hit a home run all the way.”

The two others in the CL were Hiroshima Carp center fielder Yoshihiro Maru and Chunichi Dragons third baseman Hector Luna, both first-time winners.