NPB rolls into Olympic break after eventful first half

Every NPB player on a first-team roster was deactivated on Thursday in one mass transaction. It was just a procedural move — because there are no games scheduled for the next 10 days — but many fans still got a kick out of the rare sight of the rosters emptying all at once in the middle of the season.

The roster clearing came a day after NPB wrapped up its first half.

The league’s All-Stars took center stage over the weekend, with the Central League winning Game 1 of the All-Star Series 5-4 on Friday and the Pacific League bouncing back with a 4-3 victory in Game 2 the next day.

Olympian Ryosuke Kikuchi of the Hiroshima Carp went 4-for-4 with a homer and drove in a pair of runs in the Game 1 to garner MVP honors at MetLife Dome in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture.

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles outfielder Hiroaki Shimauchi had a big day in his home park in Game 2, going 3-for-4 with three RBIs in an MVP performance.

The league is now on hiatus for the Tokyo Olympics, where a team of NPB stars will try to win Japan’s first-ever gold medal in baseball. There are no more games on the schedule until August 13, which makes it a good time to look back and see where things stand.

The Hanshin Tigers have been in first place in the CL for virtually the entire season and went into the break with a two-game lead over the Yomiuri Giants. The Tigers began to lose their grip on first place down the stretch but won enough to maintain an advantage on the hard-charging Kyojin.

Hanshin rookie Teruaki Sato has been the power hitter he was touted as during the draft, finishing with 20 homers in the first half — he also went deep during the Game 2 of the All-Star Series.

Tigers pitcher Koyo Aoyagi earned himself a spot on the Samurai Japan roster with his play, going 8-2 with an NPB-best 1.79 ERA in 14 starts.

The race for the three CL Climax Series spots already looks settled, with the third-place Tokyo Yakult Swallows 10 games ahead of the fourth-place Chunichi Dragons.

The Giants’ Kazuma Okamoto leads NPB with 27 home runs and 80 RBIs, while DeNA BayStars outfielder Keita Sano, the 2020 batting champion, is leading the CL with a .328 average.

If there was an MVP award being given out today, Okamoto — who was left off Atsunori Inaba’s Samurai Japan roster for the Olympics — would be the right choice.

The Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Munetaka Murakami played like a man possessed at the start of the season, but Okamoto has gradually chased him down for the lead in home runs — Murakami has 26 — and has 19 more RBIs. Okamoto also has a higher batting average at .271 to .258.

Murakami has drawn twice as many walks (61 to 30) and has an .954 on-base plus slugging percentage to Okamoto’s .910. Murakami also leads the league in runs created, while Okamoto is fifth.

The MVP, though, almost always comes from the team that wins the pennant, which means it would be one of the Tigers right now.

If we go by what usually happens, the Tigers’ Koji Chikamoto would have an argument. He doesn’t have the power numbers or RBIs, but Chikamoto is hitting .292 as Hanshin’s leadoff batter and is tied for the league lead with 17 stolen bases. Per Deltagraphs, he also has a 3.5 WAR.

Over in the Pacific League, the surprising Orix Buffaloes, whose last top-three finish was in 2014, rose to the top of the standings for the first time in seven years in June and are still there at the break.

The Pa League is more tightly packed than the CL, with the Buffaloes leading the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles by 1½ games but only ahead of the fourth-place Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks by four. Over in the CL, the Tigers have a 12½-game lead over the Dragons.

The Buffaloes have been led by an atypically (for them) strong offense and a two-headed monster in their pitching rotation.

It’s entirely possible this year’s PL MVP and Rookie of the Year would both be Orix pitchers if the season ended today.

Ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto makes his case for being the best pitcher in Japan right now every time he steps on the mound. He ended the first half 9-5, which ties him for the most wins in NPB, and is first in the PL with 121 strikeouts and a 1.82 ERA.

With the Giants’ Tomoyuki Sugano pulling out of the Olympics due to his health, the dynamic Yamamoto has a chance to become one of the faces of Samurai Japan during the Games. He’ll probably also draw plenty of attention from overseas baseball observers.

Hiroya Miyagi, who is eligible to win Rookie of the Year, is 9-1 and trails only his teammate in the PL with 94 strikeouts and a 2.10 ERA.

Yamamoto started Game 1 of last weekend’s All-Star Series, while Miyagi got the call in Game 2. Miyagi’s start came after the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ Masahiro Tanaka reportedly pulled out due to an adverse reaction after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

Yutaro Sugimoto has helped power the offense with 18 home runs and a .917 OPS.

While Yamamoto may end up winning MVP, the pick here at the moment is outfielder Masataka Yoshida.

Yoshida had an excellent first half with an NPB-best .343 batting average to go with 17 home runs and 55 RBIs. He’s currently got more walks (46) than strikeouts (19) in addition to a .989 OPS. Yoshida is the only player in either league in the top five in all three Triple Crown categories.

If the vote were held today, however, Yamamoto would likely win based on historical trends.

NPB teams will be playing exhibitions during the prolonged break in order to keep the players who aren’t on national team duty fresh.

So fans will have to get their competitive fix from the Olympics, which will also include a handful of NPB’s foreign stars trying to help lead their own countries to a gold medal at Yokohama Stadium.

The Olympics will also give fans of the Tigers and Buffaloes reason to dream. The last time Tokyo hosted the Summer Games, in 1964, that season’s Japan Series was an all-Kansai affair between the Tigers, who play in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and the Nankai Hawks, who played in Osaka, which the Buffaloes currently call home.

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Source : Baseball – The Japan Times

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