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Iwakuma flies off with MVP / 5th-place Eagles' ace surprise pick for PL honors; Giants' Ramirez wins

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Iwakuma flies off with MVP / 5th-place Eagles' ace surprise pick for PL honors; Giants' Ramirez wins

by Jim Allen (Nov 22, 2008)

Hisashi Iwakuma earned a rare windfall on Friday, when he became the first player in 20 years to win a Most Valuable Player Award while playing for a fifth-place team.

"I'm extremely happy that the voters would evaluate my season so highly considering I didn't play for a championship team," said the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace, who went 21-4 and also won the Sawamura Award as the nation's top starting pitcher.

Iwakuma won largely because the two strongest Saitama Seibu Lions candidates, shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima and third baseman Takeya Nakamura, split the vote. Nakajima was second with 460 points to Iwakuma's 521, while PL home run king Nakamura was third with 322.

Players receive five points for a first-place vote, three points for a second-place vote and one point for a third-place vote.

Iwakuma bounced back from two injury-hit seasons in which his combined record was 6-7.

"I really didn't change anything but my mental approach," said the 27-year-old. "Last year, about all I could do was cheer on my teammates. This season I started each game with a sense of gratitude that I could be there and without thinking of numerical targets."

The right-hander allowed three home runs in 201-2/3 innings, the fewest allowed by a starting pitcher in Japan since Yakult's Tomohito Ito gave up three in 109 innings in 1993.

Iwakuma was joined on the podium by Alex Ramirez of the Central League champion Yomiuri Giants. Top rookie honors went to Giants middle reliever Tetsuya Yamaguchi, 25, in the CL and Orix Buffaloes right-hander Satoshi Komatsu, 27, in the PL.

Iwakuma became the third Pacific Leaguer to win the award with a fifth-place team. Lotte Orions first baseman Hiromitsu Ochiai was the first, in 1982, and Fukuoka Daiei Hawks designated hitter Hiromitsu Kadota won in 1988.

Ramirez, in his eighth season but his first with Yomiuri, was an easy winner in the CL, raking in 900 points--more than the next two finishers combined: Giants first baseman Michihiro Ogasawara (381) and right-hander Seth Greisinger (303).

"I'm really proud that I could play every day," Ramirez said in a video shown at the press conference. "I'm very happy to [have] won the RBI title. To be able to win that means a lot to me and a lot to my teammates."

Ramirez said his biggest thrill of the season was hitting a walk-off homer in Game 2 of the Japan Series.

"Every child dreams of hitting a home run in the Japan Series," said the Venezuelan, whose team lost in seven games to the Lions.

"My goal for 2009 is to be Nippon Ichi, that's my goal: to win the Japan Series."

Yamaguchi, who received 91 votes to top teenage Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto (49), said there was no time during the season for he and Sakamoto to discuss whether one of them might win the award.

"We never talked about it," said Yamaguchi. "During the year, you're just focusing on the next game, and then the one after that."

Yamaguchi went 11-2 in middle relief and became the first player originally signed to a developmental contract to win the award.

The lefty joined the Giants after beginning his pro career in the United States with two years of rookie-league ball in the Arizona Diamondbacks system.

"Over there, tomorrow could be the day you get cut," he said. "In order to avoid that, you play and practice with reckless abandon.

"This year, I came into a lot of games with runners on base. And every time I was able to keep them from scoring it kind of amazed me."

Komatsu, the PL's top rookie, caught an enormous break at the beginning of the season, when the Buffaloes starting rotation was decimated by injuries.

"You never want to be glad someone gets hurt, but I felt it was my big chance," said Komatsu, a premium pre-draft signing by Orix in 2006.

"Most of all, I want to pitch within myself on the mound and enjoy myself."

Ramirez was joined on the CL's Best IX team by Giants teammates Greisinger and catcher Shinnosuke Abe.

Two made the squad from the second-place Tigers: shortstop Takeshi Toritani and outfielder Tomoaki Kanemoto. The last-place BayStars also bagged two spots as batting champ Seiichi Uchikawa won in a landslide over Ogasawara at first base, and Shuichi Murata became the first Yokohama third baseman so honored.

Swallows outfielder Norichika Aoki won his fourth straight award, while second baseman Akihiro Higashide became the first Carp player to be honored since 2005.

Five Lions were placed on the PL squad, all first-time winners: Nakajima, Nakamura, second baseman Yasuyuki Kataoka, catcher Toru Hosokawa and outfielder Takumi Kuriyama.

Iwakuma was joined by Eagles outfielder and PL batting champ Rick Short. First baseman Alex Cabrera and designated hitter Tuffy Rhodes made the squad from the third-place Buffaloes, while outfielder Atsunori Inaba of the second-place Fighters won his third straight.

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