Young slugger lives up to the hopes represented by the No. 55 on his uniform

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger Munetaka Murakami hits a home run in the bottom of the seventh inning on Monday at Jingu Stadium in Tokyo.

At the age of just 22, Munetaka Murakami has broken the home run record held by Japan baseball legend Sadaharu Oh.

A player for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, Murakami hit his 56th homer in his final at-bat of the regular season on Monday, breaking Oh’s single-season record of 55 home runs for a Japan-born player. Murakami also became Japan’s youngest triple crown winner, living up to the expectations represented by the No. 55 on his uniform.

Roars erupted from the crowd of about 30,000 as Murakami connected with the first pitch in his fourth at-bat of the game, in the bottom of the seventh inning. He pumped his fists in the air, confident of a home run. The ball flew into the right stands, where fans greeted his accomplishment with loud applause.

“I’m really relieved,” Murakami told reporters after the game. “Winning the game, getting hits and challenging the record. There was a lot of pressure, and I’m glad I finished in a good way.”

As early as his first year at Kyushu Gakuin High School in Kumamoto, Murakami was named the cleanup hitter at that summer’s National High School Baseball Championship. He joined the Yakult Swallows in 2018, a top draft pick for his potential as a slugger.

Yakult General Manager Junji Ogawa, who was the team manager back then, gave Murakami the uniform number 55. The hope was that he do as well as Oh, who hit 55 homers in a single season in 1964. Another player in mind was Hideki Matsui, who also wore No. 55 as a former Giants slugger and had 50 homers in 2002.

After joining Yakult, Murakami switched from catcher to third baseman to lessen his burden in fielding and emphasize his batting ability instead. Inexperienced in the position, Murakami misjudged the distance to balls and often failed to even touch them with his glove.

But he kept practicing steadily, and in his first year of spring training, former manager Katsuya Nomura urged him on by saying, “Break Oh’s record.”

Murakami hit his 55th homer on Sept. 13. However, perhaps due to the pressure to exceed Oh’s record, he then had a home run drought lasting 57 plate appearances over 13 consecutive games.

Manager Shingo Takatsu, who has been watching Murakami since his days in the farm league, said: “Even a baseball mangaka couldn’t conceive of a scenario in which he hits his 56th homer during the last at-bat of the season. But it was the kind of batting that epitomized this year’s Mune (a nickname for Murakami), finishing the last at-bat with a brilliant hit.”

Luckiest boy

A 14-year-old Yakult fan caught Murakami’s 56th home run ball.

The junior high school student from Koto Ward, Tokyo, was watching the game from the infield stands but happened to be heading to a concessions booth near the outfield when the moment happened.

The commemorative ball was exchanged for Murakami’s batting gloves.

The boy said Murakami “looked like he was struggling under pressure, but he hit in the final game, which I thought was impressive. That’s fantastic.”