Murton Makes His Mark In Japan

TOKYO—Matt Murton, who never quite fulfilled his promise in the United States, has found stardom in Japan.

Now an outfielder with the Hanshin Tigers, Murton broke the Nippon Professional Baseball record for hits in a season on Oct. 5 when he singled in the second inning of a game against the Yakult Swallows at Jingu Stadium in Tokyo.

Murton stroked a clean single to center with the bases loaded for his 211th hit of the 2010 season, his first in Japan. The previous mark of 210 hits had stood for 16 years, having been set by Ichiro Suzuki of the Orix BlueWave in 1994.

Murton’s record-breaking hit came during a nine-run inning by the Tigers and drove in two runs. The game was stopped briefly as the Jingu Stadium video board acknowledged the new record. Murton was presented with a congratulatory bouquet of flowers by Tsubakuro, the home team Swallows’ bird mascot, as fans of both teams cheered the accomplishment.

Television cameras focused on Murton as Yakult first baseman Jamie D’Antona offered a handshake, then picked up Swallows center fielder Norichika Aoki applauding Murton’s achievement. Aoki himself had one hit in the game and has 205 for the season, and he leads the Central League in batting with a .358 average, while Murton is third at .351.

Murton added two more hits—a single and a double—during the record-breaking game, boosting his total to 213 with the two games remaining. During postgame “hero” interviews, he expressed his admiration for Ichiro and appreciation for the opportunity to play in Japan.

“I have a lot of respect for him; he’s one of the best players in baseball,” Murton said, pointing out that Ichiro’s 210 hits came in 1994, when Japan pro baseball played a 130-game schedule. Murton broke the record in the Tigers’ 142nd game of a 144-game season.

“I also respect this league,” he said. “It’s a great honor (to be playing in Japan), and I am very excited about it.”

Murton, 29, was a supplemental first-round pick (32nd overall) of the Red Sox in 2003, coming out of Georgia Tech. He went to the Cubs in the 2004 trade deadline deal that centered around Nomar Garciaparra, and reached the big leagues with Chicago in 2005. He spent most of the next three years with the Cubs but never established himself as a regular, and the Cubs traded him to the Athletics in a 2008 deadline deal that netted them Rich Harden. The Athletics traded him to the Rockies the next spring, and he spent most of the 2009 season in Triple-A.

Murton, a career .286/.352/.436 hitter in 952 major league at-bats, has hit from the very beginning in Japan, however. He has also shown more power than he did in the U.S., which was always a knock on his profile as a corner outfielder. He has 17 home runs this season and was batting .351/.397/.502 overall.

One of the factors allowing him to collect so many hits was his insertion by Hanshin manager Akinobu Mayumi as the leadoff batter. Murton batted first in about half the Tigers games this season, helping him to accumulate 660 plate appearances. He also leads the Central League with 105 runs scored.

Aoki had three games remaining, while Murton and the Tigers had two important games left to play. Hanshin and the Yomiuri Giants are fighting for second place and home-field advantage in the first stage of the Central League Climax Series of playoffs, with the Tigers leading by one percentage point.