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This could be Year of the Homer in PL

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At first glance, you might think the new Japanese strike zone will benefit pitchers and be a hindrance to batters this coming season. The zone has been raised more than the diameter of one baseball, but I believe it will be the hitters — not the hurlers — who will get the most advantage out of the new rule.

The single-season home run record of 55, now shared by Tuffy Rhodes and Sadaharu Oh, is likely to be eclipsed, and I can see several players, especially in the Pacific League, hitting 50 or more roundtrippers in 2002. Don’t be surprised if one or two men hit 60.

Why? Because the guys will be swinging more.

Leery of taking the high pitch for fear it may be called a strike under the new zone definition, the hitters will be hacking at serves right up there, at or above the letters.

The rule change is the latest in a series of factors that have increased the Pacific power surge.

A phenomenon occurred last season in the PL, three years after a similar outbreak in North America’s National League, when Mark McGwire of the Cardinals slammed 70 homers and Sammy Sosa of the Cubs had 66. Last year, San Francisco’s Barry Bonds cracked an incredible 73.

During the 1990s, only three Pacific Leaguers had a 40-homer season: Seibu’s Orestes Destrade with 42 in 1990 and 41 in 1992, Ralph Bryant of Kintetsu with 42 in 1993 and Rhodes with 40 in 1999. In 2001, Rhodes tied Oh’s record with 55, Alex Cabrera of Seibu belted 49, Kintetsu’s Norihiro Nakamura whacked 46, and Hiroki Kokubo of Daiei marked 44 four-baggers. I think they were just warming up.

Among the factors contributing to the home-run barrage is less skillful pitching. Several of the Pa League’s best moundsmen left as free agents for the Central League or the majors during the past seven years.

Hideo Nomo “retired” from the Buffaloes and went west in 1995. Kimiyasu Kudo left the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks for the Tokyo Giants in 2000, the same year Satoru Komiyama transferred from the Chiba Lotte Marines to the Yokohama BayStars.

Kazuhiro Takeda, the leading Pacific League winner in 1998 with Daiei, moved to the Chunichi Dragons. Eric Hillman, a standout for Chiba in 1995 and 1996, skipped to the Giants, then had arm trouble. Crafty left-hander Nobuyuki Hoshino switched from the Orix BlueWave to the Hanshin Tigers.

All of the above could have been in their prime right now as top Pacific League pitchers.

In 1997, six PL hurlers posted an earned run average below 3.00, led by Komiyama’s 2.49. In 2001, Nate Minchey (a rare one who went Central to Pacific — Hiroshima to Lotte) led the league with a 3.26 ERA, even with a losing record of 12-14. No doubt about it, the pitchin’ ain’t what it used to be.

Then there are the ballparks. The ball flies in the Tokyo Dome, and the Osaka Dome has become a homer haven as well. Cabrera hits ‘em over the bleachers and off the center-field scoreboard at the Seibu Dome, and it is not at all difficult for the new breed of sluggers to clear the fences at the league’s two remaining outdoor yards, Chiba Marine Stadium and Green Stadium Kobe.

There seems to be something strange with the ball used by the Hawks at the Fukuoka Dome, Japan’s most spacious field with that ridiculously high fence. It carries just fine for Kokubo and mates Nobuhiko Matsunaka (36 homers last year), Kenji Jojima (31) and Tadahito Iguchi (30). But when the Yomiuri Giants play their annual “home” series at the Fukuoka Dome, you’d be lucky to see two homers during the entire three-game set.

The 140-game schedule implemented last year (up five games over 2000) obviously helps raise home run totals, and these guys are in their prime, in great shape and power-lifting all winter to increase upper-body strength. Now, with the new high strike zone, they’ll be swinging more.

Candidates for membership in the 40-, 50- or even 60-homer club in 2002 include:

* Rhodes, whose 55 blasts in 2001 broke the PL record and tied Oh-san’s Japan standard, despite his being “cheated” by the Daiei pitchers who refused to throw him strikes with the record on the line.

* Cabrera, who tailed off in the second half of last season, finishing with 49 after an early pace that had him on track in June for a 75-homer year.

* Nakamura, who can file for free agency this November and will be out to improve on his 46-homer total and better his career year, during which he led Japan with 132 RBIs and hit a neat .320.

* Kokubo, who perhaps has his mind on playing in the majors in 2004 after achieving free-agent status here.

* Matsunaka, the 2000 PL MVP who went from 23 HRs in 1999 to 33 to 36 and is just coming into his prime at 28.

* Scott McClain, who hit 39 for the Lions in his first Japan season last year.

* Nigel Wilson, a two-time former Pa League homer king (37 in 1997 and 33 in 1998 with the Nippon Ham Fighters), who joins the power-packed Kintetsu lineup with Rhodes and Nakamura (Good night!) in that Osaka Dome homer house. If Wilson’s knees are OK and he can play the whole season, look out.

* Sherman Obando, another 2001 injured Fighter fencebuster. He was the 2000 runnerup to Ichiro Suzuki in the Pacific loop batting race, hitting .332 with 30 homers and 101 RBIs in only 107 games. Like his former teammate Wilson, if Obando stays healthy and plays the full schedule, 40 homers should be a piece of cake.

* Chiba Lotte Marines cleanup men Frank Bolick and Derrick May and Fighters first baseman Michihiro Ogasawara are capable of hitting 40.

Then there is the element of the unknown, with new American players Morgan Burkhart (Daiei), Fernando Seguignol and Scott Sheldon (Orix) and D.T. Cromer (Nippon Ham). It remains to be seen how they will take to Japanese baseball and if they can establish themselves as power providers.

With this new strike zone and increased free swinging, the Year of the Horse should be the Year of the Homer in the Pacific League.