Is this truly the Year of the Tigers? Here we are, about 43 percent of the way through the 2003 Japan pro baseball season, and the Hanshin Tigers are in the driver’s seat in their attempt to win their first Central League pennant in 18 years, and only their third since the two-league system was established in 1950. Hanshin last won in 1985, led by American Triple Crown batting winner Randy Bass.

Prior to that, the Tigers were CL champions in 1964, so it took 21 years to win their second title, and 18 years is an improvement, but fans supporting the black-and-yellow would like to see a championship more often. Through games of June 9, manager Senichi Hoshino’s Tigers were sitting on an eight-game lead over the second place Yomiuri Giants, Hanshin’s archrival.

American batting coach Tom O’Malley says this year’s Hanshin club has been tremendously improved by the acquisition of three key players during the last off-season: starting pitcher Hideki Irabu, closer Jeff Williams and left-fielder Tomoaki Kanemoto.

“Getting those three guys has turned out to be huge,” said O’Malley prior to the June 1 game against the Giants at Tokyo Dome on the day after the Tigers scored an 11-run ninth inning in a tremendous come-from-behind win.

“We had a good team before we got them, and the nucleus of a pennant-contender was there last year, but adding those three is what put us over the top.”

Irabu returned to Japan after pitching in the major leagues for six seasons with the New York Yankees, Montreal Expos and Texas Rangers. Once called a “fat toad” by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner in his latter, overweight days with New York, Irabu was also written off by the media during this year’s spring camp with the Tigers as being too heavy and out of shape. But, boy, has he been dealing since Opening Day. At last look, the 34-year-old righty was leading the Central loop with a 7-1 record and a 2.20 ERA, and he’s got three complete game victories when Williams needed a rest.

Williams, for his part, would not have believed on Opening Day he would be where he is today. Signed as a set-up man, the former Los Angeles Dodgers lefty backed into the Hanshin fireman’s role and converted his first 16 save chances before finally blowing one. He’s got 17 saves which puts him on pace for 41 for the season (the Japan record is 45 by Kazuhiro Sasaki of Yokohama in 1998), and his ERA is a stingy 1.71.

Kanemoto came to the club as a free agent from Hiroshima where he was one of the Carp’s top hitters over the past decade. He went from Japan’s smallest home ballpark in Hiroshima to one of the most spacious, Hanshin Koshien, and is not putting up the home run numbers of which he is capable, at least not yet.

Still, he was hitting .304 with seven homers and 37 RBIs, and he’s won his share of games with clutch hits throughout the year.

Two other factors contributing to Hanshin’s rise and proudly pointed out by O’Malley are the fact the Tigers have a fantastic .291 team batting average (they also have the league’s best pitching staff ERA at 3.62) and a coaching roster loaded with former managers.

Hoshino was a long-time, two-term manager of the Chunichi Dragons before taking over the Tigers in 2002, and head coach Koichi Tabuchi managed the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks from 1990 to 1992.

Battery coach Tatsuo Tatsukawa was the field boss of the Hiroshima Carp in 2000 and 2001, and third base coach Akinobu Okada was Hanshin’s Western League minor league team skipper. O’Malley himself piloted the Newark Bears in the North American Independent Atlantic League for four seasons.

“Lots of managerial experience here, and it helps,” said Big Tom who hopes to get back into the manager’s chair some day, maybe here in Japan.

Meanwhile, the Tigers keep winning, but a Japan Series appearance is still a long way off. There is a lot of baseball remaining to be played, and Hanshin cannot become complacent.

Recall 1996 when the Giants came back to win the Central League pennant after being 11 games out of first place in July, riding that hard-on-the-ears English phrase, “Make Drama,” coined by then-Kyojin manager Shigeo Nagashima.

In 1999, the Tigers were in first place at the beginning of June, not by eight games, but still on top. But when the season ended, they finished dead last.

Also, Hanshin still must face its annual jinx, the dreaded August “Shino Roodo” or “Road Trip of Death” when the team gives up its own Koshien Stadium to the mid-summer National High School Baseball Tournament.

This year, the Tigers will play outside Koshien from Aug. 4 to 25. While Bass and the 1985 team were not bothered at all by the “Shino Roodo,” the suitcase survival challenge has in the past spoiled many a season when Hanshin was in first place on Aug. 1 but was not on top at the end of the month. The Tigers are so far the talk of 2003, but it’s a long season.

Besides O’Malley, another hopeful as a future American manager in Japan is former Milwaukee Brewers and Detroit Tigers field boss Phil Garner.

A source in the U.S. says Garner heard about the hiring of Trey Hillman by the Nippon Ham Fighters and Leon Lee by the Orix BlueWave and wants Japanese teams to know he is available, experienced and ready to go East.

That’s it for this week. See you at Diamondbacks Day at Tokyo Dome on Sunday.

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