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Saturday, June 28, 2008

NPB NOTEBOOK

Fine play by Tigers during interleague season helped boost CL lead


Staff writer

The Hanshin Tigers missed out on the interleague title, but they're still on track for the one that matters.

News photo
Driving force: Munenori Kawasaki (left) led the charge as the Softbank Hawks claimed the 2008 interleague title. KYODO PHOTO

Nippon Professional Baseball resumed its regular schedule on Friday and the Tigers have to be feeling pretty good about themselves.

Hanshin had a great run during the interleague campaign, going 15-9 and finishing second — by virtue of losing a tiebreaker (last season's record) — to the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, who were also 15-9, in the standings.

The Central League leaders entered the interleague season with a 3 1/2-game lead over the second-place Chunichi Dragons and were ahead of third-place Tokyo Yakult by 8 1/2.

They finished with a 6 1/2-game lead over the Dragons and a 10-game lead over the third-place Yomiuri Giants through Thursday.

That cushion could play a big role later in the season with the annual "shi no roodo" (road trip of death) — during which the Tigers leave their home stadium, Koshien, for three weeks during the National High School Baseball Tournament — looming.

"It's not just Chunichi and the Giants," Hanshin veteran Tomoaki Kanemoto told reporters. "There are other teams we cannot take lightly. I want to take it one game at a time."

Back in the fold?: Lost in all the hype over Koji Uehara joining the Giants' first-team practice this week, was that fellow Yomiuri star Hisanori Takahashi was also present.

Injuries have limited Takahashi, who went 14-4 last season, to nine game this year. The Yomiuri All-Star faced 15 batters during an intrasquad game, striking out Michihiro Ogasawara twice and Shinnosuke Abe once.

The somewhat uncertain status of Ogasawara's left knee means the Kyojin will need all the help they can get if they have any hopes of chasing down league-leading Hanshin and retaining their regular-season CL title.

Takahashi's return to the ichigun rotation could reportedly come during Yomiuri's series against the Hiroshima Carp which began on Friday.

Tetsuya Utsumi, Seth Greisinger and Adrian Burnside have helped hold the fort, but Takahashi's return could be just the jolt the Giants need to get them over the hump.

Welcome home: Yomiuri slugger Alex Ramirez has been one of the top foreign players in Japanese baseball since joining the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in 2001. Next season he'll just be one of the top players in Japanese baseball.

Following this season, his eighth in Japan, Ramirez will basically be Japanese in the eyes of the NPB and no longer count against his team's quota of foreign players.

This is a result of the revised free agency rules the league and the players' association agreed to earlier this week.

Under the new rules Ramirez will become "Japanese" a year earlier than usual — under the old system a player needed 10 seasons before no longer counting as a foreign player on a team's roster.

That rule could prove to be a valuable tool for the Giants next season, permitting them to carry five foreigners on the first-team roster.

Orix Buffaloes star Tuffy Rhodes is the only other active player who doesn't count against his team's foreign quota. Rhodes, who reached the status under the old rules, is currently in his 12th season in Japan.

Mune's money: Fukuoka Softbank Hawks shortstop Munenori Kawasaki won the first interleague MVP award by a position player after batting .366 with a league high 37 hits during the interleague season. Kawasaki received ¥2 million for his efforts.

"I didn't expect to be selected. I had many mistakes, so I'm not satisfied with my performances," Kawasaki said after the award was announced.

Hanshin's Tomoaki Kanemoto and Tohoku Rakuten pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma were also recognized for their efforts, each receiving a ¥1 million runnerup prize.

Kanemoto had a stellar year against the Pacific League, finishing with league-highs in batting average (.407) and RBIs (29) and second to Kawasaki with 35 hits.

Iwakuma led Japanese baseball with five wins and finished with a 2.08 ERA during the interleague season.



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