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OSAKA — The Hanshin Tigers will push Norihiro Nakamura for a prompt answer on whether the free-agent slugger wants to join the Central League club, manager Senichi Hoshino said.

News photoNorihiro Nakamura

Hanshin is due to hold a third round of talks Dec. 17 with Nakamura after he returns from a vacation in the United States.

Nakamura is hoping to hear from major-league clubs before deciding on his destination for next season, but Hoshino appears to have lost patience in waiting.

“The (MLB) winter meetings will have already taken place and so it would be a bit late (for an answer),” Hoshino said Sunday night.

“If we don’t feel he is serious about joining us, there is no point in going (into further talks Dec. 17).”

Nakamura, the two-time Pacific League RBI king who batted .294 with 42 homers and 115 RBIs for the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 2002, is in talks with Kintetsu and the Tigers, each offering him a six-year deal worth more than 3 billion yen.

On Sunday, a report in a New York daily once again linked the 29-year-old power hitter to the New York Mets following the imminent departure of third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo.

The New York Post said the Mets may go after Nakamura, who arrived in New York on Sunday night.

Yanks may nix Matsui

NEW YORK (Kyodo) The New York Yankees, widely believed to be chasing Japanese free-agent slugger Hideki Matsui, could shift their attention to Montreal Expos outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, according to a local daily.

The New York Daily News reported Sunday that the Yankees “agreed all around that they would try to get” Guerrero if he becomes available, even if the price “precluded them from signing Japanese star Hideki Matsui.”

The daily quoted Expos president Tony Tavares telling the Associated Press that the team would begin exploring trade options in order to keep their payroll manageable, indicating a possible deal involving Guerrero.

Guerrero hit .336 with 39 homers, 111 RBIs and 40 stolen bases this year.

Matsui is set to begin negotiations with major-league clubs as his agent Arn Tellem arrived in Japan on Sunday night to sign a formal contract with the three-time Central League MVP.

Tellem, who is with sports marketing firm SFX Sports Group, arrived at Kansai International Airport but declined to disclose details about his schedule in Japan.

Tellem has Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi, Oakland Athletics pitcher Barry Zito and Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra among his clients.

Swallows ink top pick

The Yakult Swallows agreed to terms with their top draft pick Yuhei Takai on Sunday, making him the highest-paid rookie straight out of high school in club history.

Takai, a left-hander at Tohoku High School in Miyagi Prefecture, will earn an annual salary of 12 million yen in 2003 in addition to a signing bonus of 100 million yen and incentives of up to 50 million yen.

He will wear Kazuhisa Ishii’s old uniform No. 16.

Ex-Giant dead at 83

Shigeru Chiba, a former Yomiuri Giants infielder and Kintetsu Buffaloes manager, died on Monday. He was 83.

Chiba’s family said he was dead when his wife tried to wake him at his home in Tokyo. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Chiba joined the Giants from Matsuyama Shogyo High School in Ehime Prefecture in 1938 and as a second baseman was named to the “Best Nine” squad seven times between 1947 and 1953.

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