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Resurgent Carp veteran Arai turned back clock during MVP season

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Staff Writer

Many fans might have thought Takahiro Arai was heading to the Hiroshima Carp to retire.

After the 2014 season, the then-37-year-old left the Hanshin Tigers to join the team he’d spent his first nine years with. Arai was coming off a season in which he’d played 94 games and hit .244 with three home runs and 31 RBIs, while only getting 176 at-bats. Back in Hiroshima, he’d be a good veteran presence as a backup and an extra bat off the bench for the Carp, or so some of the thinking went.

So imagine the surprise when Arai, now 39 and a veteran of 18 seasons, was standing onstage at the 2016 NPB Awards as the Central League MVP on Monday, only a few days after being named to the CL’s Best Nine team.

“I’m actually surprised myself,” Arai said. “It was more like people helped me win it, rather than I won it myself.”

Not bad for a guy who thought he’d be done a couple of years after being the Carp’s sixth pick in the 1998 draft.

“No way did I think I’d still be playing,” Arai said after the award show. “When I saw the older players like (Koichi) Ogata practicing so hard during training camp (in 1998), I thought I’d be done after two or three years. I never imagined I’d be playing until 40.”

Arai hasn’t hit 40 yet, but he’ll reach the big 4-0 on Jan. 30, well before the start of his 19th season. He’ll enter that year with a tough act to follow.

Arai had one his best seasons in years in 2016. He hit .300 with 19 home runs and 101 RBIs, his best numbers in all three categories since 2010, when he hit .311 with 19 homers and 111 RBIs for the Tigers.

“The hitters who hit in front of you are important,” Arai said of his RBI total. “Kosuke (Tanaka), Kiku (Ryosuke Kikuchi) and Yoshihiro (Maru) got on base a lot and ran a lot and that’s why I was able to reach the 100-RBI mark.”

Arai’s resurgence coincided with the Carp’s. He helped the team capture the CL pennant for the first time in 25 years, and Hiroshima fell just two wins short of its first Japan Series title since 1984.

“We won our first (CL) championship in 25 years this year, and became a team that left an impression,” he said. “But next year is going to be a tougher year for us. By cooperating with our younger guys, we are going to keep working to climb the mountain and reach the Japan Series title.”

Arai credited the legion of Carp fans, who filled the stands at Mazda Stadium and successfully invaded the road venues the team played in, with helping push Hiroshima over the top this season. The veteran infielder is a favorite among Hiroshima fans, and has reached new levels of celebrity on social media, where fans edit pictures of him into various situations.

“We really appreciate them,” Arai said of the fans. “I left Hiroshima (after the 2009 season) and came back last year. In my first at-bat since coming back, they welcomed me so warmly and chanted so loudly and I was happy about that. They inspired me and I wanted to give them some inspiration as well. That’s what kept my body going.”

Arai was one of oldest players in NPB this past season, but his durability wasn’t particularly diminished. He appeared in 132 games for Hiroshima, starting 111, his most in three seasons. He’s the oldest CL MVP in history, surpassing former Chunichi Dragons star Kazuhiro Wada, who was 38 when he won in 2010.

“Well, I am old,” Arai said, “but that being said, I think I did well and I want to give myself a little credit.”

He was one of two celebrated golden oldies on the Carp roster, starring alongside 40-year-old pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, who made his debut two years before Arai did. While they eventually left Hiroshima, Arai for the Tigers and Kuroda for the majors, both returned in 2015.

Fittingly, after years of playing on Carp teams stuck at the bottom of the standings, they reached the CL summit together this year. The veterans shared a long, tearful embrace on the field at Tokyo Dome after the team’s pennant-clinching victory in September.

The now-retired Kuroda was also present on Monday as the two shared a stage together once again.

“Kuroda told me to do a Gut’s pose (after the MVP announcement),” Arai joked, “but when I heard that I won, I thought it was a joke.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report