The Hanshin Tigers are riding high heading into the All-Star break, battling it out for the Central League lead, and they can thank their foreign contingent for much of that success.
While Craig Brazell and Matt Murton are swinging hot sticks for the Tigers, starter Jason Standridge is getting the job done on the mound, sporting a 6-1 record in a dozen starts this season, his first in a Hanshin uniform.
"I absolutely love it here (with Hanshin), it's awesome," Brazell said prior to a recent game at Jingu Stadium against the Yakult Swallows. "For me, it's the No. 1 place to play, my favorite place ever to play. I don't think any place can ever compare to playing at Koshien."
And the love appears to be mutual, as the Tigers' rabid fan base has really embraced Brazell and Murton this season.
Brazell is tied for second in the Central League with 30 home runs, two behind Alex Ramirez of the CL-leading Yomiuri Giants. Brazell's 71 RBIs are also second to Ramirez (81) and his .299 average is more than respectable, as is his .611 slugging percentage.
The flame-haired Murton, meanwhile, has been on fire his first year in Japanese baseball. His .348 average has him among a handful of players hovering around .350 at the top of the CL--including teammate Keiichi Hirano--and he has driven in 57 runs with 10 homers so far in 2010.
Together, the pair have helped Hanshin to a 48-36-1 record, just a half-game behind the first-place Yomiuri Giants heading into the five-day All-Star break.
It won't be much of a break for Brazell and Murton, however, as they will both be playing in Japan's version of the Midsummer Classic--and both of them wouldn't want it any other way.
"It's going to be a great experience," said first-baseman Brazell, 30, referring to his first All-Star appearance in Japan. "It's something that every player strives for, to be recognized as one of the top players in the league."
Murton, who, like Brazell, has played in All-Star Games in the past at every level except--the major leagues, echoes those sentiments.
"It's a great honor, it really is," said the 28-year-old outfielder from Florida, who will become the first foreign-born Hanshin player in 50 years to be selected for the All-Star series in his first year here. "As a foreign player coming into a new league, you just never know. But to be part of it, with all the history of the game here and some of the great players, it's going to be a lot of fun."
While Murton has had success here fresh off the boat, Brazell is part of what is becoming a common trend in Japanese baseball--the recycled foreign "helper." After hitting 27 home runs for the Seibu Lions over 130 games in 2008, the Alabama native was released, only to resurface midway through last season with the Tigers, where he hit .291 with 16 homers and 49 RBIs over 82 games.
"Especially for Matt, being his first year coming over, to do what he's done is amazing," Brazell said. "Jason (who played two seasons with Softbank in 2007-08) is one of those guys, like me, that the Tigers gave a second chance to, and we're not taking that for granted, getting an opportunity to play."
Brazell's performance this year has people comparing him to another big-swinging American Hanshin hero from a few years back, two-time Triple Crown winner Randy Bass, who starred for the Tigers in the 1980s. Some dubious pitch-calling strategy in 1985 prevented Bass from breaching Sadaharu Oh's single-season NPB home-run record of 55, since tied by both Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera. Brazell, however, maintains that records like that are far from his mind.
"I don't think about it, I really don't," he said. "Home runs, if they keep coming, great. But the way I look at, if the RBIs keep coming that's even better, because that means I'm helping the team win."