In my Sept. 17 column, I asked the question: Who will be the Hanshin Tigers (and Central League) MVP for 2003?
Now it’s congratulations to the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks on winning the Pacific League pennant and, like the Tigers in the CL, the Hawks’ effort was a tremendous display of teamwork with no one player emerging as a clear favorite to win this year’s PL Most Valuable Player trophy.
I pointed out last time there were at least eight Hanshin players who could be considered as deserving of the CL MVP prize.
For the Hawks, with four players having more than 100 runs batted in, six .300 hitters and one standout pitcher, it appears at least seven members of Fukuoka Daiei could stake their claim as MVP. The guys and their credentials are as follows:
Second baseman Tadahito Iguchi was fourth in the league batting race with a .340 average, led in runs scored with 112 and stolen bases with 42. Also had 27 homers and 109 RBIs.
Catcher Kenji Jojima, sixth in PL batting at .330, second in the league with 182 hits and 119 RBIs, and the leader with 327 total bases. Also had 34 homers (third behind Kintetsu’s Tuffy Rhodes with 51 and Seibu’s Alex Cabrera at 50) and was second with 39 doubles. Also has that “catcher’s advantage” in the MVP voting I mentioned in that column last month.
First baseman Nobuhiko Matsunaka, the MVP in 2000, was ninth in the league with a .319 average, had 30 HRs and a hot finish that left him as the leader in both leagues with 123 RBIs.
Left fielder Pedro Valdes from Puerto Rico who batted .311 with 26 homers and 104 RBIs.
Center fielder Akihito Muramatsu hit .324 and had 32 stolen bases before being injured in August. He still managed to lead both leagues with 13 triples though he played only 109 games of the 140-game schedule.
Right fielder Hiroshi Shibahara finished fifth in the PL batting department, averaging .333. He also banged out his share of clutch hits throughout the season.
Starting pitcher Kazumi Saito was 20-3, becoming the first Pacific League 20-game winner since 1985. Moreover, Saito joined Seibu Lions hurler Daisuke Matsuzaka in a flat-footed tie for the league earned run average crown. Each posted a dandy 2.83 ERA. Of course, with 20 victories in 23 decisions, Saito led in winning percentage at .870.
We should also mention a couple of young lefty pitchers: Rookie Tsuyoshi Wada was 14-5 with two shutouts and a league fifth-best 3.38 ERA, while Toshiya Sugiuchi was 10-8, and his 3.37 ERA was good for No. 4 in the PL, just ahead of Wada.
What a team! And to think they did this without regular third baseman and cleanup hitter Hiroki Kokubo who missed the entire season with a leg injury sustained in spring training after he hit .292 with 32 homers and 89 RBIs in 2002.
Again, I do not have the privilege of voting for the MVP but, if I did, my top three selections would be as follows: 1) Jojima 2) Iguchi 3) Saito.
Now, my prediction for the Japan Series. I look for Fukuoka to take it in five games. Sure, Hanshin has a great team, as pointed out here last month, and the Tigers have the support of those crazy fans who jumped into Osaka’s Dotonbori River after the pennant clinching which occurred, incidentally, more than a month ago, on Sept. 15.
The Hawks clinched on Sept. 30, long ago enough in itself, and their offense, as pointed out above, is just awesome. Orix BlueWave manager Leon Lee called Daiei’s batting attack a “buzzsaw,” and he should know. The ‘Wave was the victim of losses by scores of 26-7 and 29-1 in two of their games against Fukuoka this season.
Almost everyone expects the Oct. 18 Series opening match-up at Fukuoka Dome to be a battle of the 20-game winners, Saito for the home team, and lefty Kei Igawa (20-5) for Hanshin.
The venues are a contrast in structure, with the 10-year-old state-of-the-art, high-tech, artificial turf and covered Fukuoka Dome the scene for Games 1 and 2 and, if necessary, Games 6 and 7.
The middle three contests will be played at Koshien, just outside Osaka in Hyogo Prefecture, and “Japan’s Wrigley Field,” an ancient shrine of a ball park with real grass but a skin infield, and its outside walls are covered with ivy as are the outfield fences inside Chicago’s Wrigley, home of the another hot 2003 team, the Cubs.
Both stadiums allow the fans to launch multi-colored jet balloons during the seventh inning stretch, a trademark spectacle at the 48,000-seat Fukuoka Dome and also at Koshien which seats 55,000, and all chairs should be occupied for every game.
The Japan Series games are all scheduled to start at 6:15 p.m.
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