The Central and Pacific League pennant races were decided weeks ago, but the Japanese baseball season continues until the 12 teams have completed all 140 games on their schedules. The last game is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 18, and the next week-and-a-half of baseball, despite no flag chases, will prove to be interesting because of the fierce competition for individual batting and pitching titles in both leagues.
I say it is interesting; not necessarily fair. Japanese baseball is known for the shenanigans that occur as players do whatever they can to help teammates win the titles by stymieing opponents also in contention. You saw what happened to Alex Cabrera of the Seibu Lions last Saturday when he was walked twice and drilled by a pitch from Kenichi Wakatabe of the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, who was obviously trying to prevent Cabrera from breaking the all-time single-season home run record co-held by his manager, Sadaharu Oh.
Sadly, this kind of Mickey Mouse business has been going on for at least the 26 years I’ve been covering Japanese baseball, and probably a lot longer. The treatment of Randy Bass of the Hanshin Tigers when he was going for the home run record in 1985 has been well documented.
I can recall two Central League batting titles won by players who sat out their teams’ final game or two and watched their own pitchers walk the hitter on the opposing team who was No. 2 in the race for the Silver Bat. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the titles up for grabs as the season winds down. Statistics are reflected through games of Oct. 7.
Hideki Matsui-Kosuke Fukudome Central League batting race. Yomiuri Giants slugger Matsui has the CL home run and RBI titles locked but probably will not win a Triple Crown, as Fukudome is now in position to win the batting title. After going 3-for-4 on Sunday, the Chunichi Dragons right fielder took a .342 to .336 lead over Matsui to pretty much secure the crown.
Fukudome can sit out the Drags’ final three contests, and Matsui would have to go 5-for-6 or 6-for-9 in his last two games to re-take the lead. Even then, Fukudome would have another game after Matsui is done.
Alex Cabrera vs. rivals for Pacific League batting and RBI titles. The Lions’ Venezuelan first baseman is not only trying to hit home run No. 56 on the season to set a new Japanese record but also going for a Triple Crown. The Hawks pitchers would not throw him strikes because they want to protect the mark of 55 shared by Oh-san and Tuffy Rhodes of the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes.
The Buffs pitchers also want the Tuffster to pass Cabrera as the league’s top RBI man, and Rhodes was only one behind, 115-114, with three games left for the Lions and seven for Kintetsu. Meanwhile, Cabrera led Michihiro Ogasawara of the Nippon Ham Fighters in the batting race, .339 to .337. The F’s had four games left, Seibu three, and Cabrera says he will play until he hits home run No. 56, regardless of the hitting title and RBI situation.
Koji Uehara-Kevin Hodges CL hurler derby competition. Uehara is 17-5, and his Giants have two games remaining, tomorrow at the Tokyo Dome against Yakult and Friday at Hiroshima. He could pitch once, or he may just sit on the 17 wins. Hodges of the Swallows is 16-8. He last pitched on Sunday and most likely will have one more start, against Yokohama on Oct. 11, 12 or 13, to try for No. 17 and tie for the title, unless Uehara gets his 18th triumph Oct. 10 or 11.
If Uehara is done and Hodges should get win No. 17 on Oct. 11, the Swallows could employ a trick used before to give a pitcher a title or 20th win. Let’s say, at the last game on Oct. 13, another pitcher starts for Yakult, and the team has a lead in the fifth inning. Manager Tsutomu Wakamatsu could remove the starter with two out in the fifth and bring in Hodges as a reliever.
Since the starter will not have gone the required five full innings to qualify for the victory, Hodges would be the pitcher of record and get the win, assuming he does some halfway decent pitching for a couple of innings and holds the lead. But Hodges has said, “I would never want to win a title that way.” Good for him. It should be pointed out that Hodges lost a key opportunity to start on Oct. 1 when a game at the Tokyo Dome was postponed on account of a typhoon.
Jeremy Powell-Nate Minchey in PL hurler derby. Well, looky here. How about this? Two Americans are vying for the most pitching victories in the Pa League. Powell of the Buffaloes is 17-9, having won No. 17 on Oct. 5. Minchey of the Marines was 15-13 after winning on Oct. 3.
Minchey has a chance for three more starts: tonight, then on Oct. 14 and maybe the 18th. Powell had a possible two more starting appearances: Oct. 10 and 17, so it would appear he will be get the title, but Minchey has been dealin’, having won his last six decisions. This could go down to the wire as the Marines and Buffaloes wrap up the schedule Oct. 17-18 at Chiba Marine Stadium.
Masumi Kuwata and Kenshin Kawakami vying for Central League ERA crown. Kuwata leads the Central loop with a 2.22 earned run average. Chunichi Dragons hurler Kawakami has a 2.27 ERA, having passed Kuwata with seven shutout innings on Oct. 2. Then Kuwata turned in seven scoreless innings of his own on Oct. 4 to re-take the lead.
The Dragons had three games left: one last night, one tomorrow and one yet to be scheduled. Most likely, Kuwata will not pitch, and Kawakami will get his chance to once again overtake Kuwata in that final contest. If that is the case, Kawakami would need to complete five innings with no earned runs to win the crown. As soon as Kawakami gives up an earned run, Kuwata wins.
Eddie Gaillard for “Fireman of the Year.” Chunichi relief ace Gaillard leads the Central League with 34 saves and 35 save points (saves plus relief wins). Junichi Kawahara of the Giants can tie Easy Eddie with save points in the final two Kyojin games tomorrow and Friday. Yakult stopper Shingo Takatsu has 32 saves and could pass Gaillard in his team’s last seven games, but how many of those will provide a save chance?
About the title, Gaillard says he wasn’t going to stick around and fight for it.
“I don’t care about it,” he said last week. “Once (the Dragons) clinch third place, I’m outta here.”
Chunichi has now secured at least a third-place finish, and Gaillard should be back in he U.S. by now, resting for next season.
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