As they say in the baseball biz, Aaron Guiel has been rakin'.
The Yakult Swallows right fielder is off to such a hot start in 2008 that the team might want to keep a fire extinguisher handy.
Guiel, a 35-year-old former New York Yankee and Kansas City Royal in his second year in Japan, is leading the Central League in six offensive categories, including home runs (6), RBIs (15, tied with Hanshin's Tomoaki Kanemoto), runs scored (11) and total bases (39).
It's still early, of course, but as of Monday the Canadian slugger, who slammed three home runs off the Yomiuri Giants over the weekend--including one shot on Saturday into the upper deck in right field that was approaching 500-foot territory--also boasts an outrageous .830 slugging percentage. The closest--if you can call it that--man to Guiel in slugging percentage is his Yakult teammate Yasushi Iihara at .689. (Slugging percentage is the total number of bases divided by the number of at-bats. Many in the game feel it's a more relevant statistic than batting average, which does not differentiate between a single and an extra-base hit.)
"Well I knew I had six home runs, but that's about it," Guiel said Monday, when asked about his scorching start. "To tell you the truth I really don't pay much attention to stats until I've had a significant number of at-bats. If I had to give a reason (for starting so well), it would probably be that I'm a little better prepared this year, more familiar with the league and the opposing pitchers."
Guiel is no stranger to the long ball. The left-handed batting British Columbia native finished second in the CL home-run derby last year with 35, one behind league leader Shuichi Murata of the Yokohama BayStars, but this year he has also been hitting for average (.340).
Under new manager Shigeru Takada, the hot hitting of Guiel, Iihara (.378 average, 3 triples) and league-leading hitter Hiroyasu Tanaka (.408 average) has helped the Swallows to a respectable third place in the standings with a 7-6 record through 13 games.
Last year, the Swallows hit the ball well but their pitching was atrocious and they finished in last place. Things did not look to be getting much better heading into this season when the team lost one of its most productive and popular hitters and its top starting pitcher in the offseason. Free-agents Alex Ramirez (.343 average, 29 homers, 122 RBIs in 2007) and right-hander Seth Greisinger (16-8, 2.84 ERA) both signed lucrative deals with the Giants, but with guys like Tanaka and Iihara stepping up, and with perennial 200-hit man Norichika Aoki on pace for another good season and Adam Riggs healthy again, these new-look Swallows are getting it done ... so far, at least.
While the 11-3 Tigers have been the class of the CL so far, the big-spending Giants finally seem to be getting their game together. After stumbling out of the gate this year--they were swept by Yakult to start the season and had a 1-7 record at one point--the defending CL champs are now sitting at 5-8-1. Still not where they expected to be, perhaps, but right in the hunt with plenty of baseball left to play.
Greisinger got his first win in a Giants' uniform on Friday and Ramirez is starting to pound the ball again, with five homers to go along with his .315 average. New closer Marc Kroon is doing his thing once again, saving four of the Giants' five wins.
Injuries have hurt the Giants early, with shortstop Tomohiro Nioka sidelined with a leg injury and slugger Lee Seung Yeop's effectiveness limited by a sore hand.
The Chunichi Dragons, the 2007 Japan Series winners, are 21/2 games behind Hanshin and a game ahead of the Swallows heading into today's action.
In other news over the weekend, Tigers veteran Tomoaki Kanemoto finally reached the 2,000-hit plateau Saturday, with the milestone coming on a seventh-inning RBI single against the BayStars in Yokohama.
The hit snapped an 0-for-15 run for a relieved Kanemoto, whose last base hit had come in the first inning back on April 6 against the Giants, and helped Hanshin to a 6-3 win.
With the hit, the 40-year-old outfielder became the 37th man in Japanese professional baseball to achieve the feat. Kanemoto, a 17-year veteran, was 1-for-3 Saturday and then chalked up hit No. 2,001 Sunday when he went 1-for-4 in a 3-1 win over Yokohama.
Kanemoto will now be inducted into the famed Meikyukai ("Golden Players") club, whose membership is comprised of NPB players and players who played in both NPB and the major leagues who accumulated at least 2,000 hits, 200 wins or 250 saves.
(IHT/Asahi: April 15,2008)