Nakajima, Wada stand out in PL

by Jason Coskrey

The 2010 All-Star Series is in the rearview mirror and the Pacific League returns to action with a full slate of games on Tuesday night. Meaning now is as good a time as any to stop and take stock of the first few months of the year.

Pacific League MVP: Hiroyuki Nakajima

Nakajima is filling up the box score for the PL’s first-place team and leading by example on and off the field.

Among players who qualify for the batting titles, the Seibu Lions shortstop leads the league with a .926 on-base plus slugging percentage.

He’s been an all-around threat, entering the break hitting .329 with 12 home runs, 51 RBIs and 10-for-10 in stolen base attempts.

Nakajima has continued to produce even after sliding into the cleanup role earlier in the year after an injury to slugger Takeya Nakamura and Takumi Kuriyama’s brief stint in the role.

A case can be made for: Drawing a name out of a hat.

The race for the PL MVP Award is as wide open as the race for the pennant.

Fukuoka Softbank Hawks slugger Jose Ortiz is a candidate, leading the league with 23 homers and batting .275 with 71 RBIs.

Elsewhere, South Korean import Kim Tae Kyun is leading the PL with 73 RBIs while hitting .280 with 18 homers for the Chiba Lotte Marines.

Orix Buffaloes slugger Takehiro Okada is also putting up decent power numbers.

Then there are the pitchers. A hurler has won the award four out of the last five years and there could be a pair of strong candidates in Fukuoka Softbank Hawks duo Toshiya Sugiuchi and Tsuyoshi Wada, each 12-4.

First half’s top pitcher: Tsuyoshi Wada

The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks hurler faced questions about his health during the spring but has laid the injury concerns to rest with a strong first half.

Wada is 12-4 with a 2.88 ERA and has already equaled his win total of the past two years combined. He’s holding batters to a stingy .215 average and striking out hitters at a rate of 9.05 per nine innings.

Even with Toshiya Sugiuchi, Japanese baseball’s only other 12-game winner, behind him in the rotation, it’s Wada who is setting the pace for the Hawks.

A case can be made for: Yu Darvish

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace’s 9-5 record isn’t as sexy as the matching 12-4 marks Wada and Sugiuchi have, but he makes up for it elsewhere.

Darvish leads the NPB with a 1.56 ERA, his 1.05 WHIP is fourth-best among pitchers who qualify for the pitching titles, and his 143 strikeouts are second only to Sugiuchi’s 151.

Had Darvish received a little more support earlier in the season, his win total may have already reached double-digits.

In his five losses, Darvish has a 2.37 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 35 strikeouts over 38 innings. The Fighters averaged just 1.6 runs in those five games.

First half’s top rookie: Takashi Ogino

Like celebrated first-year Yomiuri Giants player Hisayoshi Chono, Ogino isn’t exactly a rookie.

He’s is 24 years old and had experience in the Industrial League before being drafted by the Chiba Lotte Marines.

The outfielder has been in the lineup since Opening Day and got off to a blazing start for the Marines this season.

Through 46 games, Ogino was hitting .326 with 17 RBIs and a .383 on-base percentage. He had also stolen 25 bases, once swiping four in one night — against the Orix Buffaloes on May 8.

Ogino was sidelined by a damaged meniscus in his right knee May 24 and hasn’t returned yet.

The Marines are expecting him back this season and will be hoping he can get back up to speed quickly when the pennant race heats up.

A case can be made for: No one:

It’s slim pickings among PL candidates this year. If Ogino comes back at anywhere near his pre-injury level, he’ll run away with the award.

Keep an eye on: Kensuke Tanaka

While the big boppers in the Central League chase the home run record, Tanaka is vying for a 200-hit season.

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters infielder led Japanese baseball with 132 hits and a .350 average at the All-Star break.

Batting leadoff for the Fighters, Tanaka has maintained a torrid pace through out the year.

Keeping up such a pace is a lot to ask of a player, but Tanaka’s consistency so far suggests he may be up to the task. Should he reach 200, he’ll join some elite company.

Only three players have recorded 200 or more hits in a season.

Ichiro Suzuki is the single-season record holder, having recorded 210 for the Orix BlueWave in 1994. Even more impressively Ichiro’s feat came during a 130-game year.

Alex Ramirez is second with 204 hits for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in 2007 while Norichika Aoki had 202 for the Swallows in 2005.