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Munetaka Murakami and Yoshinobu Yamamoto already had a few things in common before the NPB Awards.

Both are rising stars who helped Japan win a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in the summer and led their teams — the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and Orix Buffaloes — to their respective league pennants in the fall. They were both All-Stars who put up big numbers during the regular season, before helping their teams reach the Japan Series.

Now they have one more thing in common: they’re both MVPs.

Murakami, the Swallows’ slugging third baseman, and Yamamoto, the Buffaloes’ ace pitcher, were named the MVPs of the 2021 season during NPB’s annual awards ceremony on Wednesday night.

“I’m very honored to win this award,” Murakami said.

The 21-year-old Murakami, who was named Central League MVP, finished tied for the league lead with 39 home runs and drove in 112 runs to finish one behind RBI leader Kazuma Okamoto. He also batted .278 and was second in the CL with a .974 on-base plus slugging percentage. At 21, the fourth-year player is the youngest to win the award in the CL.

“I didn’t win this alone,” Murakami said. “I feel a lot of gratitude toward the Swallows and everyone who supported me and I want to say thank you.”

Murakami was in the lineup as the cleanup hitter for all 143 of the Swallows’ games this season and was one of the driving forces behind the club’s run to the Central League and Japan Series titles. Murakami hit a pair of home runs against the Buffaloes to help the Swallows win one of the most exciting Japan Series in history in six games.

The Swallows’ success was on his mind when he was asked about his most memorable moment of the season.

“No. 1 has to be the team finishing on top,” he said.

The Swallows' Munetaka Murakami was the CL co-leader with 39 home runs in 2021. | KYODO
The Swallows’ Munetaka Murakami was the CL co-leader with 39 home runs in 2021. | KYODO

Murakami received 287 of a possible 306 first-place votes and earned 1,472 points to win the award by a comfortable margin. Yakult second baseman Tetsuto Yamada, who was the last Yakult player to win an MVP award (2015), was second with 348 total points and Swallows reliever Noboru Shimizu was third.

Murakami was the CL Rookie of the Year in 2019 and is the seventh player in CL history to earn both awards.

Yamamoto added the PL MVP to the Sawamura Award he won last month after a dominant season for the Buffaloes. Yamamoto was 18-5 with a 1.39 ERA and 206 strikeouts over 193⅔ innings in 26 starts. The right-hander helped take a Buffaloes team that had fallen on hard times from last-place finishes in 2019 and 2020, to the PL pennant and an appearance in the Japan Series this year.

The 23-year-old led the PL in wins, ERA, strikeouts, innings pitched, WHIP (0.85), winning percentage (.783), quality starts (23) and complete games (6).

“I’m going to do my best next season to have even better numbers than I had this year,” Yamamoto said.

Yamamoto stumbled out of the gates, going 3-5 with a 2.37 ERA in his first nine starts. The right-hander then went on one of the most dominant runs ever seen by an NPB pitcher, going 15-0 over his final 17 starts of the season. He threw at least six innings and allowed no more than two runs during his streak of winning decisions.

“I had more losses than wins at the start of the season, but I was able to bounce back with 15 straight wins, so I think I had a really good result,” he said.

Yamamoto received all but three first-place votes in the PL. His teammates received the others, with two going to slugger Yutaro Sugimoto and pitcher Hiroya Miyagi receiving the other.

Miyagi didn’t go away empty-handed, as the left-hander was named PL Rookie of the Year. Carp closer Ryoji Kuribayashi was the CL’s top rookie,

Miyagi was 13-4 with a 2.51 ERA in 23 starts for the Buffaloes, teaming with Yamamoto to give Orix a pair of double-digit winners.

“Miyagi and I created a really good base and if we are both able to have even better results next year, it will be good for the team,” Yamamoto said.

Kuribayashi set a rookie record with 22 consecutive scoreless appearances to start the season and allowed just five runs in 52⅓ innings overall. He finished second in the CL with 37 saves.

The right-hander was also a member of the Samurai Japan team that earned gold at the Tokyo Games over the summer.

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