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Gaining entry into the 2,000-hit club is usually among the final chapters in most players’ careers. For Yomiuri Giants star Hayato Sakamoto, though, reaching one of the game’s crowning achievements for a hitter might just be a stepping stone to even more rarefied heights.

Sakamoto on Sunday became the 53rd player to collect 2,000 NPB hits and immediately everyone began looking ahead.

“Up next is 3,000 right?” teased pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, who was a teammate of Sakamoto’s in little league and delivered one of the video messages on the scoreboard at Tokyo Dome on Sunday. NPB legend Sadaharu Oh also encouraged Sakamoto to reach for 3,000. Koji Uehara, a former MLBer and retired Yomiuri great in his own right, is another who thinks 3,000 is a realistic goal for his former teammate.

Three-thousand is a huge number, but Sakamoto has the game and, more importantly, at 31 seems to have the time to get there. He could even possibly retire as NPB’s all-time hit king if things break right.

As if already feeling the push of expectation, Sakamoto, who reached 2,000 with a double in the first inning off Swallows pitcher Albert Suarez, homered in his next at-bat and singled his third time up. He finished the day with 2,002 career hits — including 376 doubles, 22 triples and 242 home runs — and with the Japanese baseball world wondering how far he could go.

“I still have the feeling that he’s developing,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said in his on-field interview. “After getting his 2,000th hit, he hit a home run. That was a really good hit, and if he still has room to go further, then I’m sure he’s going to aim for 3,000.”

Three-thousand hits has been a virtually unscalable mountain in NPB, where seasons are shorter than in MLB. Isao Harimoto is the only player to have gotten there, finishing his career with 3,085. Katsuya Nomura, No. 2 on NPB’s all-time list, fell 99 hits short. No one else has gotten close. Oh retired with 2,786, Hiromitsu Kadota’s 2,566 is the fourth-most and Ironman Sachio Kinugasa rounds out the top 5 with 2,543.

Sakamoto, though, still has a lot of his career ahead of him and to this point has shown great durability. He has also shown incredible ability at the plate. He has been a regular for Yomiuri since his second season and before this year, which was shortened because of the COVID-19 pandemic, his lowest hit total since 2008 was 129.

He has 13 years of full-season mileage on his tires but will begin next season at 32 and has some productive years left. Per Sports Hochi, he’s also racking up hits at about the same pace Harimoto did.

Sakamoto is the second-youngest player to reach 2,000 at 31 years, 10 months. Only Kihachi Enomoto, who got there at 31 years, seven months, was younger — though Sakamoto’s 2020 season was also delayed by three months because of the pandemic. Enomoto reached 2,000 in 1968 and played for four more seasons, but only in a combined 106 games in the final two, to finish with 2,314.

Three-thousand hits was an almost unthinkable total even before this era of top players, such as Ichiro Suzuki, cutting their NPB careers short to head to MLB. Even getting to 2,000 is far from guaranteed. The other active members of the 2,000-hit club are 38-year-old Seiichi Uchikawa, who has 2,171, and 39-year-old Takashi Toritani, who has 2,090. The only other active players with at least 1,900 are 37-year-old Takumi Kuriyama, who has 1,926 and Kosuke Fukudome, 43, who has 1,909.

In this era of seasons that stretch beyond 140 games, Sakamoto is the rare player to come along who started early enough, put up the numbers and stayed in Japan — MLB was a realistic path for him had he chosen it — long enough to make 3,000 a possible goal.

He has a long road ahead and would have to stay healthy and productive. Plus, the chase has already taken a hit, with the global pandemic causing NPB to trim 23 games off this year’s schedule.

Sakamoto has been so consistently good, actually really great a lot of the time, that even as baseball celebrates this milestone, it’s impossible to think that he’s done now. Even he has already heard the calls to strive for 3,000.

“I think that’s my next goal,” he said during his postgame news conference, per Sports Hochi “I’ve taken it one game at a time to this point and when I step in the batter’s box, I think ‘I want to get a hit.’ I’ve reached 2,000 by taking things that way. One day, one hit at a time, I think I’ll carry that feeling until I retire.”

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