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It’s just a matter of time before the Seibu Lions wrap up the 2002 Pacific League pennant. The Leos’ magic number for clinching is down to nine, and one of the most interesting results of Seibu’s great team effort will be the announcement in November of who will be the Pa League Most Valuable Player.

News photoKazuo MatsuiNews photoAlex Cabrera

The two leading candidates will be first baseman Alex Cabrera and shortstop Kazuo Matsui, each having a banner year and both deserving of the award.

Through Monday’s game, Cabrera was a bona fide Triple Crown candidate. He was leading Japan with 49 homers, was tied with Tuffy Rhodes of Kintetsu with 104 RBIs, and he was third in Pacific League batting with an average of .334, just four percentage points behind the leader, Michihiro Ogasawara of the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Cabrera is also the league leader with 288 total bases, 84 walks, a .467 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage of .789.

Matsui’s numbers include a .318 batting average, 28 homers, 68 RBIs (in the leadoff position), and he is on top in the PL with 98 runs scored, 154 hits and 35 doubles. His 29 stolen bases are one behind the leader, Yoshitomo Tani of the Orix BlueWave. Matsui also plays stellar defense, and that is not to say Cabrera is a not a good fielder; he is more than adequate.

If I had a vote, I would give it to Cabrera, but only if he wins the T.C. If not, I would split it right down the middle and give half a vote each to Cabrera and Matsui. If there were ever a year for co-MVPs, this could be it.

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Meanwhile, in the Central League, Yomiuri Giants slugger Hideki Matsui continues the assault on his own Triple Crown season (with stats of .355, 42, 91) and, as he completes what will have been a career year, the rumors get stronger that he will be wearing the uniform of the New York Yankees or another major league club when spring training opens next February.

Can you imagine the number of Japanese reporters and cameramen covering the Yankees-Seattle Mariners games next season if Matsui does get into the pinstripes, playing against Ichiro Suzuki, Kaz Sasaki and Shigetoshi Hasegawa?

His chief rival for all three titles in the CL, Venezuelan first baseman Roberto Petagine of the Yakult Swallows, trails Matsui in batting average (.327), home runs (36) and RBIs (81) but does not consider himself as being in a race with “Godzilla” for the titles. “I can’t help what Matsui does, and I’m just doing my job,” said Petagine. “God will decide who wins the titles.”

One thing they both dislike, I’m sure, is being put on camera when the Giants are playing the Swallows on TV, and the other hits a homer. Matsui goes yard, and the camera focuses on Petagine. Roberto clears the fence, and there’s a lens closeup on Hideki. What are they supposed to do? Make a face? Stick out their tongue? Start bawling?

Petagine is right; neither can do anything about each other’s hits and homers. The cameras should stay on the guy circling the bases in the HR trot.

By the way, should Matsui (or Petagine) and Cabrera sweep the three main offensive titles, it would be only the third time in Japanese baseball history for Triple Crowns in both leagues in the same year.

It happened in 1985 and 1986, and the same players won everything both years. They were both first basemen. Can you name them? Answer at the end of the column.

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Swallows’ pitcher Kevin Hodges is also having a career year. He’s already won 15 which is 50 percent more than his previous best season, 2001, when he racked up 10 victories, five at Triple-A Tacoma in the Mariners organization and five more after joining Yakult.

His 15th triumph of 2002 came last Thursday against the Giants at the Osaka Dome, and it set a new single-season record for foreign pitchers on the Yakult Swallows or Atoms, by which name the team was known prior to 1974. Terry Bross was 14-5 for the 1995 Japan Series champion Swallows, and now Hodges has eclipsed that mark.

Only two foreign pitchers have ever won 20 games in a season in Japan. Can you name them? Answer at the end of the column.

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Now that the Major League Baseball Players Association has not gone on strike, and the November Major League All-Star Japan Tour will be held, can we expect to see big league season openers here in 2003?

The Mariners and Chicago White Sox were to begin the 2002 schedule in Tokyo, but the then-uncertain labor situation in North America forced abandonment of that idea.

Now that the path is clear for labor peace through 2006, there is no reason we can’t have the MLB open here next spring.

How about the Mariners and Yankees? Or a National League matchup with Hideo Nomo, Kazuhisa Ishii and the Los Angeles Dodgers playing the Washington Expos? Or will they be the Senators again?

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Answer to the double Triple Crown winners in 1985-1986: Randy Bass of the Hanshin Tigers led the Central League in 1985 (.350, 54, 134) and 1986 (.389, 47, 109). Hiromitsu Ochiai, then with the Lotte Orions, topped the Pacific League with stats of .367, 50, 146 in 1985 and .360, 52, 116 in 1986.

Answer to the foreign pitchers 20-game winners: Gene Bacque was 29-9 for the Hanshin Tigers, and Joe Stanka went 26-7 for the Nankai Hawks, both in 1964, in the days when pitchers threw out their arms working seemingly every other day. Hurlers today are lucky if they get 26 decisions, let alone 26 wins.

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Our friends at Tropicana have agreed to be the main sponsor of Arizona Diamondbacks Night at the Tokyo Dome on Sept. 21. See you there.

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