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Congratulations to the Hanshin Tigers for winning the 2003 Central League pennant. It took a while to wrap it up, but it’s always better when a team clinches the flag at home as the Tigers did on Sept. 15, a full one month and three days prior to the Oct. 18 start of the only post-season play in this country, the Japan Series.

One of the most interesting results of the season will be the selection of the CL Most Valuable Player. He will come from the Tigers, of course, but due to injuries and several key men missing portions of the schedule, there is not really one outstanding performer who you would call a “shoo-in” as was Randy Bass when he achieved his first of two batting Triple Crowns the last time the Tigers won in 1985.

There appear to be as many as eight viable MVP candidates, all of whom would be deserving of the honor. Let’s take a look at each, with stats listed as those through that pennant-deciding game on the 15th:

Lefty pitcher Kei Igawa, with a record of 16-5. Leads the league in victories, shutouts (with two), winning percentage (.762) and is second with 157 strikeouts. Was on his way to a possible 20-win season when hit in the leg by a batted ball and missed a couple of starts.

Second baseman Makoto Imaoka who leads the league in batting at .342, batting average with runners in scoring position (.431), hits (165) and doubles (35). Also has 12 homers and 72 RBIs.

Catcher Akihiro Yano, second to Imaoka in the batting race with a .333 average. Has 13 homers, 70 RBIs and the “Catcher’s Factor” in his favor. That’s where sportswriters who can’t make up their minds voting for the MVP cast their ballots for the winning team’s masked man for his leadership in handling the pitching staff.

Center fielder Norihiro Akahoshi, fifth in the league batting race with a .319 average and the leader in both leagues with 55 stolen bases. The speedy Akahoshi also saved a few games with great running catches in the outfield and delivered the game-winning “sayonara” hit on the day the Tigers won the pennant.

First baseman-third baseman George Arias who leads the CL with 34 homers, is second in the league with 99 RBIs and has a .271 average along with great versatility defensively to cover either corner infield position. Sure, the voters know he’s a gaikokujin suketto (foreign “helper”), but so was Bass.

Left fielder Tomoaki Kanemoto who joined the Tigers as a free agent from the Hiroshima Carp. Stats include a .288 average, 18 homers, 74 RBIs and a team-leading 87 runs scored.

Righty pitcher Hideki Irabu, returning to Japan after a six-year major league stint, has chalked up a 13-7 record with a 3.64 ERA and started the pennant-clinching game on Sept. 15. Hanshin’s American batting coach Tom O’Malley says the Tigers could not have won without the addition of Irabu and Kanemoto.

Southpaw relief ace Jeff Williams played a huge part in the team’s early season success, converting his first 16 save chances. He’s got 24 saves overall, along with a win and a 1.66 ERA.

The voting takes place prior to the Japan Series and the MVP will be announced a day or two after its conclusion. I can’t vote but, if I could, my top three would look like this: 1) Igawa. 2) Arias. 3) Imaoka. But very close.

Don’t look now, but Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera each have their launching pads going full blast, hitting homers almost daily during the past week, and they could be “sneaking up” on the all-time Japan pro baseball single-season home run record they tied in 2001 and 2002 respectively. Two years ago, the Tuffster hit 55 to match Sadaharu Oh’s mark set in 1964. Cabrera equaled the figure last season.

In both those cases, they hit a lot of homers early and, by mid-August, the record was being talked about. Both were stymied by shenanigans in September and October when opposing pitchers (especially on the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, which Oh manages) suddenly “lost their control” and walked or hit the foreign sluggers.

This year, they got really hot in the last month (as did Japan’s weather). There has not been much, if any, talk of the record, but Rhodes hit his 48th bomb of the year and Cabrera No. 47 on Sept. 15. Rhodes’ Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes had 11 games remaining (three against Daiei), while Cabrera and his Seibu Lions had 12 to play; only one vs. Fukuoka.

You think maybe no one will notice they are getting close until one of them gets to 54? Nah, I suppose not, but it sure would add some excitement to the season’s tail-end if Tuffy or Alex can keep it up and challenge the record again. Gambatte, guys.

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