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Nobuhiko Matsunaka

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Nobuhika Matsunaka
(Macchan)

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Growing up with dreams of playing baseball, Nobuhiko Matsunaka was just 5' 4" as a high school junior but a growth spurt helped give him a shot at his dreams. He won a Silver Medal with Japan in the 1995 Intercontinental Cup, batting .371/.450/.714 with 3 homers, 8 runs and 13 RBI in 9 games. He was named the All-Star first baseman in the event, leading in RBI (two ahead of Nicaragua's Nemesio Porras. He also tied Evert-Jan 't Hoen, Byung-kyu Lee, Norman Cardoze, Omar Linares, Hee-sung Mun, Jose Ramon Padilla and Yoshitomo Tani for second in the event in homers, one behind Juan Rodriguez.

He played for Japan's silver medal team in the 1996 Olympics, hitting .333/?/.788 with a whopping 5 homers and 16 RBI in 33 AB. In the Gold Medal game, he went 2 for 5 with a homer and five RBI in the 13-9 loss to Cuba. Only Cuban stars Orestes Kindelan and Omar Linares, both much older, had better power performances in the 1996 Olympics.

He was the number 2 draft pick by the Daiei Hawks in 1997 and spent two years tearing up the minors. He led the Western League in homers one year and won a Triple Crown the next. He also played in the 1997 Hawaii Winter League and batted .372/?/.618 for the West Oahu CaneFires. He led the HWL in hits (71), doubles (18), RBI (37) and average, breaking Hiroki Kokubo's record. He become a regular player for Daiei in 1999. He hit .268/.359/.514 that year as one of the many contributors on a Hawk team that won the Japan Series and made his first All-Star team. In the 1999 Asian Championship, he helped Japan win Silver and was named to the All-Star team as the first baseman. The next season he did better, .312/.387/.582 - he was named Pacific League MVP though the stats weren't the best in the league by any means. He was 3rd in slugging, second in RBI (106, 4 behind Norihiro Nakamura) and third in home runs. For a first baseman, those are very weak stats for an MVP. Matsunaka also made his first Best Nine that year. In the 2000 Olympics, he shone as well, hitting .371/?/.571, ranking 6th in the Olympics in average.

Matsunaka kept on improving statistically in 2001, hitting .334/.412/.620 with 36 HR and 122 RBI. He again failed to lead the Pacific in anything, though, as Tuffy Rhodes out-homered him, Norihiro Nakamura drove in more and Kazuya Fukuura won the batting title. Matsunaka even failed to make the Best Nine, as Michihiro Ogasawara replaced him at first base.

In 2002, Matsunaka saw his first setback, dropping to .260/.348/.485 with 28 HR. He missed the All-Star team for the first time since he became a full-time player. Matsunaka recovered in 2003 to hit .324/.429/.573 as he showed that '02 had been an anomaly. He made his second Best Nine, was third in OBP, led the league with 123 RBI and tied for third with 81 walks. Along with teammates Tadahito Iguchi, Kenji Johjima and Pedro Valdes, Matsunaka enabled Daiei to have the first quartet of 100-RBI men in Nippon Pro Baseball history. That year Matsunaka was on his second Japan Series-winning team.

In '04, Matsunaka did his best work yet - .358/.464/.715, winning the first Triple Crown in NPB since Hiromitsu Ochiai in 1986. He was just the third different Triple Crown winner in Pacific League history, following Katsuya Nomura and Ochiai. He obviously made Best Nine and won his second MVP, this one far more warranted. The veteran led the league in average (14 points ahead of Ogasawara), slugging (58 points ahead of Fernando Seguignol, OBP (15 points ahead of Ogasawara), runs (118, 22 ahead of teammate Iguchi), hits (171, tied with Munenori Kawasaki), RBI (120, 12 more than Seguignol), and homers (44, tied with Seguignol). His 37 doubles were second to Fukuura and his 84 walks were 2 behind league leader Benny Agbayani. Of course, had Ichiro Suzuki still been playing in Japan, it's unlikely Matsunaka would have won the batting title and thus the Triple Crown. Matsunaka powered the Hawks to the top record in the Pacific, but they fell in Japan's first playoffs, losing to the Seibu Lions, in part due to health problems by their slugger, who had just suffered a liver inflammation.

2005 marked Matsunaka's third straight 120-RBI season, the first man in NPB history to accomplish that. Almost as good as in '04, he still hit .315/.412/.663 - and with a bit more pop (46 homers). He was third in the Pacific in average, led the league in OPS, total bases (320, 32 more than #2 Julio Zuleta, slugging, homers, RBI (121, 22 more than Zuleta), walks (76, 5 more than Alex Cabrera), OBP, runs (109, 18 more than Ogasawara) and extra-base hits and was just one hit behind Kazuhiro Wada for the lead. He had topped even more categories than he had in '04 and again the Hawks had the best record in the PL. He was named to the Best Nine at DH.

In January 2006, Matsunaka signed a seven-year contract with the Hawks, setting a new NPB record, surpassing Daisuke Miura's 6-year deal. He starred for Japan's winning team in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, batting .433/.528/.567 and scoring 11 runs in 8 games. He led the Classic in hits (13), runs (3 more than the runners-up), was 5th in OBP and second to Jong-Beom Lee in doubles (4). Robinson Canó broke his Classic record for hits in 2013.

He had another great regular season at .324/.453/.528 with 102 walks and only 37 strikeouts though he only homered 19 times. Splitting time between left field and DH, his use in the outfield was criticized by those who felt it made him an injury risk. He beat out Alex Cabrera by 9 points in the batting race, led in OPS, was 5th in slugging, 7th in RBI (76), tied for 7th in homers, led in walks (24 ahead of Kazuhiro Wada), had an OBP 49 points higher than runner-up Cabrera and was second with 79 runs, five behind Arihito Muramatsu.

The 2007 NPB season was Matsunaka's worst since 2002, batting only .266 with 15 HR and 68 RBI, also only playing 123 games, the least of his career since 1999 when he became an everyday player with the Hawks. Splitting time at DH and first base, Matsunaka never seemed to find his swing, and looked hurt all year.

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