Twenty-two-year-old Munetaka Murakami's season home run total entered some rarified air Friday when he became the youngest Japan-born player to hit 50 and the first since Hideki Matsui did it in 2002.
Playing for the Central League's Yakult Swallows on their Tokyo home ground, home run-friendly Jingu Stadium, Murakami broke up a scoreless game off Chunichi Dragons ace Yudai Ono. The lefty missed in the middle of the plate, and Murakami blasted a three-run home run in a 5-0 victory.
"I wanted to get the ball in the air and, at the very minimum, get a sacrifice fly," said Murakami, who wears the same No. 55 that Matsui sported during his time with the rival Yomiuri Giants.
"I'm proud to have achieved something that puts me alongside him (Matsui), but I have other private goals I want to try hard to achieve... Not specific numbers but rather to get better each and every day."
All five of the Japan-born players with 50-plus home runs in a season -- Makoto Kozuru, Katsuya Nomura, Sadaharu Oh, Hiromitsu Ochiai and Matsui-- are enshrined in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
Oh was previously the youngest to slug 50 in a season. He set the mark as a 24-year-old in 1964 when he hit a then-record 55 for the CL's Giants.
The Swallows' Wladimir Balentien set Japan's single-season home record of 60 in 2013.
With homemade placards reading "No. 50" all over Jingu Stadium, a 31-year-old fan wearing a Murakami replica Swallows shirt, Kana Tabata said, "I'm so happy to be here at an instant like this. I really want him to keep going and win the triple crown."
Murakami went 1-for-5 as his league-leading batting average dropped to .337. He started the day with 24 homers and 40 RBIs more than his nearest challengers.
No player has won a batting triple crown since Nobuhiko Matsunaka did it with the Pacific League's Daiei Hawks in 2004. No CL batter has managed the feat since Randy Bass did it with the Hanshin Tigers in 1985 and 1986.
"He (Murakami) is the best player in Japan by far, and I'm glad he's on our team so I don't have to pitch to him," Swallows pitcher Cy Sneed said.