Japan League notes: Lee nears Oh mark

Japan League notes: Lee nears Oh mark

TOKYO - Sadaharu Oh is well enough, but his single-season home run record may not be.

Oh, who returned to the hospital on Aug. 6 after choking on food, feels OK, but Yomiuri Giants slugger Seung-Yeop Lee has Oh's mark of 55 home runs, set in 1964 and equaled in 2001 by Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera, looking somewhat peaked.

Lee, who joined Oh and Alex Rodriguez as the only players to his 400 home runs before age 30 when he homered against the Yokohama BayStars on Aug. 1, leads Japanese baseball with 36 home runs this season.

The home run chase has been a key focal point for disillusioned Giants fans who have watched in disbelief as Yomiuri has gone from the franchise's best start in 37 years (12-2-1, first place) to the Central League's depths (46-58-2, fifth place through Aug. 13).

With 39 games left in the season, Lee has to pick up the pace a bit, but topping 55 is not out of the question. Lee has five homers in August, and although he is second in batting average (.324, behind leader Kosuke Fukudome's .358 average) and third in RBIs (79, behind Tyrone Woods' 91), Lee is not in a good position to win the Triple Crown.

Lee, who hit an Asian record 56 home runs in 2003 in his last year with South Korea's Samsung Lions, starred with Korea in the World Baseball Classic and is drawing attention from Major League teams. Scouts from the Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates have been to Tokyo Dome recently to scout Lee, among others, and the Korean is expected to make a jump to the Majors after this season.

Lee spent two seasons in Japan with Bobby Valentine's Chiba Lotte Marines, playing a key role in Lotte's 2005 Japan Series championship, but he landed in Japan only after being spurned by MLB teams.

The Los Angeles Dodgers were rumored to have offered Lee a one-year, $1 million deal after his final season with Samsung, but the lefty, disappointed by the lack of interest, opted to come to Japan. Lee signed a one-year deal for ¥210 million ($1.83 million) with Yomiuri before this season, so between the WBC and his season under the spotlight at the Big Egg, Lee definitely will not be changing leagues for less than what he is making now, especially with the Giants promising him a lucrative three-year deal if he stays in Tokyo.

The Yankees allegedly have expressed in Lee, and the only team out of the running for the first baseman's services is the Dodgers, for whom Lee has no interest in playing, according to reports.

Hillman on the Move?: Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman has been the subject of rumors recently after Sports Illustrated's Web site reported the fourth-year skipper would be a good fit for the Kansas City Royals, who would need someone capable of developing younger players.

Hillman, who managed at Triple-A Columbus from 1999-2001, was director of player development for the Texas Rangers in 2002 before coming to Japan.

The Texan said he was flattered by all the speculation, but that his preference would be to stay with the northern Japan club, which is clinging to the last playoff spot in the Pacific League.

Around the Central League: The Chunichi Dragons are running away with the CL title, going 14-4-1 over the last 30 days going into Tuesday to build an 8 1/2-game lead over second-place Hanshin, the only other team within striking distance of Nagoya's finest.

The Tigers are a comfortable five games ahead of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, who are in third place.

The Hiroshima Carp, Yomiuri Giants and Yokohama BayStars, meanwhile, all have stayed within a game or two of each other in composing the CL's bottom tier, with Yokohama holding down last place much of the time.

Around the Pacific League: In and out of third place, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and Seibu Lions have the PL's two best pitchers spurring them to great seasons.

Daisuke Matsuzaka has followed up the World Baseball Classic -- in which he was named MVP-- with an 11-4 record, striking out 137 and compiling a 2.07 ERA, but he trails Saito in all three areas.

Saito is 13-4 with 149 strikeouts and a 1.68 ERA, and it's no surprise he leads the PL in all three major pitching categories.

Both the Lions and Hawks are over 60 wins, with Seibu in first place by a game.

The Fighters, meanwhile, are in the PL's final playoff spot, leading Bobby Valentine's Chiba Lotte Marines by 4 1/2 games in the standings.

Lotte, which won the Interleague Championship for the second straight season, has fallen back after climbing into first during the series with the CL, but Valentine's talented squad is not too far back to make a push for the playoffs in September.

Orix and Tohoku Rakuten, however, are too far back for that push, so far behind that the PL definitely is a four-team sprint for three postseason spots.

Gaijin Vibe: Chunichi's surge has been dependent on foreigners Tyrone Woods and Alex Ochoa, in his fourth year in Japan after playing in the Majors from 1995-2002.

Both Woods and Ochoa are among the CL's best recently, as Woods' .400 batting average, 18 RBIs and eight home runs in August have him leading the league in RBIs (92), sixth in batting (.306) and second in home runs (31).

Ochoa (.378, 13 RBIs in August) is behind Woods in production, but it was Ochoa who made the All-Star team.

Over in the PL, Cabrera has fallen off the Triple Crown pace he was on earlier this year, but only in one category. The Venezuelan slugger is tied for the lead in RBIs with 74 and is second to league-leader Michihiro Ogasawara with 21 home runs. Cabrera, who was batting over .380 in interleague season, now is hitting .316, good enough for fifth place.

Lost in Translation: "He is scary. He is always giving me advice about this or that. But if I do it wrong or forget something, he goes ballistic." -- Katsuki Yamazaki, who replaced Kenji Johjima as the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks' catcher this season, to the Daily Yomiuri about manager Sadaharu Oh, who has phoned instructions to his players since taking leave to have surgery.

Stephen Ellsesser is a reporter for The Japan Times and a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.