THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
September 14, 2022 at 17:37 JST
Munetaka Murakami has gained a “god-like” nickname during his record-setting season with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
But the third baseman who is only 22 years old has remained humble throughout.
“I could not do it on my own,” the slugger said on Sept. 13 after belting his 55th home run of the season, tying the Nippon Professional Baseball record for a Japanese-born player.
He has 15 games left to break the season home-run record of 60 set by his former Yakult teammate, Wladimir Balentien, in 2013.
Murakami’s 55th dinger came against the Yomiuri Giants in front of a home crowd at Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo.
It matched the marks set by Tuffy Rhodes of the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes in 2001 and Alex Cabrera of the Seibu Lions in 2002.
But it also put Murakami side by side with Japanese-born legend Sadaharu Oh, who hit 55 homers with the Giants in 1964.
Japan’s all-time home run king had nothing but praise for Murakami, describing him as “in a class of his own among today’s young players.”
“Sixty home runs is not an unrealistic dream for him,” Oh said.
Murakami earlier this season set an NPB record for hitting home runs in five consecutive plate appearances.
He hit his 54th home run, a solo shot, in the fourth inning in the Sept. 13 game.
In the bottom of the ninth inning, the Swallows were down 4-9, and the Giants’ rookie closer Taisei Ota was trying to wrap up the victory.
But the fans remained in the stands.
With two outs and runners on first and second bases, Murakami got another chance to make history. He didn’t disappoint the fans.
“I feel extremely honored to tie the record,” Murakami said after the game. “I want to thank my parents for being born with a healthy body.”
Although the Giants still won the game 9-7, Yakult fans went home happy. They also showed a bit more emotion than the slugger.
“He’s lived up to our expectations. He is literally Murakami-sama,” Tadayuki Okano, a 55-year-old resident of Tokyo, said after the game.
“Kami-sama” can mean “god,” and it has become Murakami’s nickname this season among fans and media.
“The moment he tied Mr. Oh’s record, I cried,” Okano said. “The Swallows lost the game, but I can go home full of happiness.”
Another fan, a 54-year-old company employee, said about Murakami's late home run, “It was all the more miraculous because there were two outs in the bottom of the ninth, we were five runs down, and I thought it was over.”
A DIFFERENT TYPE OF SLUGGER
Murakami is a left-handed hitter like Oh and Hideki Matsui, a former star for the Giants and the New York Yankees.
But Murakami uses more of the field when he bats.
In 1964, more than 80 percent of Oh’s 55 home runs were pulled into the right field stands.
When Matsui hit 50 home runs in 2002 for Yomiuri, 33 of them were hit toward right-center or right field.
Of Murakami’s first 50 homers this season, 16 cleared the left or left-center fences, 11 were blasted to center field, and 23 were hit to right and right-center fields.
“Being able to hit to the left is my strength,” Murakami has often said.
He learned to hit to the opposite field when he was a junior high school student playing in a senior little league in Kumamoto Prefecture.
Even at that young age, Murakami was already a power hitter. He used to belt home runs on the practice field, which had 80-meter right field, 100-meter center field and 80-meter left field.
He sometimes hit a house standing behind the right field.
Coaches used to scold him when he kept pulling the ball, telling him, “Hit it to left.”
Murakami honed that skill after he entered Kyushu Gakuin Senior High School, a baseball powerhouse.
Hiroyasu Sakai, 65, who coached Murakami at the school, said the young hitter could use his left hand with the strength and flexibility of a left-handed batter.
Murakami was selected in the first round of the draft and joined the Swallows in the 2018 season.
The team, seeking to make him a long-ball hitter, challenged him to “make 500 plate appearances in the farm league” in his rookie year.
Murakami made 427 plate appearances and stepped up the ladder.
“He is a strongly built man, and his persistence is his strong point, too,” said Junji Ogawa, general manager of the Swallows.
Murakami became a regular starter for the Swallows in 2019. But the team slumped to the bottom of the Central League that year as well as the following season.
But the team did not change its development strategy for the future star.
Shingo Takatsu, who became team manager in 2020, has often told Murakami, “Don’t do ping-pong-style batting or use a small swing.”
In other words, Takatsu has not forced Murakami to bat for average by spraying hits around the field.
“Swing it like a cleanup man. I won’t say anything if you get a hit or not,” Takatsu would say to Murakami.
Murakami’s bat is a major reason why the Swallows are the defending Japan Series champs and are currently on top of the Central League standings.
He is growing into a type of power hitter different from Oh and Matsui.
In fact, he hit No. 55 to the opposite field.
He hit No. 53 in a game against the Hiroshima Toyo Carp on Sept. 9, and then went through 17 at-bats without a home run.
But he still leads the Central League in batting average and is a serious threat to win the triple crown (tops in home runs, RBIs and average).
“I went through a trial and error process, checking my hitting form and mind-set when stepping in the batter’s box,” he said about his preparations for the Sept. 13 game.
When Murakami joined the Swallows, the team gave him the number 55.
“We wanted him to become a slugger like Matsui (who wore 55) and break Mr. Oh’s No. 55 record,” Ogawa said.
It took only five years for the rookie to live up to the team’s dream.
“I am happy that I could hit the same number of home runs as my jersey number,” Murakami said.
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