TOKYO -- Soon after Hiromitsu Ochiai took the unprecedented step for a Japanese baseball player of taking his team to salary arbitration before this season opened, he stated he would win the triple crown.
He lost his arbitration bid, but Ochiai may win an unprecedented fourth triple crown despite missing 19 games with a torn muscle.
With 17 games left, the 37-year-old first baseman with the Chunichi Dragons leads the Central League with 33 home runs and a .356 batting average. Ochiai is three home runs ahead of the next slugger, and the second-leading batter in the league is hitting .334.
But his 80 runs batted in are second to the 91 of Katsumi Hirosawa, an infielder with the Yakult Swallows. Ochiai's Dragons have 17 games left, while the Swallows have 14. The teams are scheduled to face each other four more times before the season ends, giving Yakult pitchers an opportunity to protect their teammate's RBI lead through intentional walks -- a strategy not uncommon in Japanese baseball.
Ochiai, as always during the season, has been tight-lipped about the prospect of winning titles.
Like many other Japanese ballplayers, he also may be giving priority to the team's performance over his own. The Dragons are in second place, four games behind the Hiroshima Carp.
Ochiai's performance may be a mixed blessing to his employer, who in March rejected his request for a salary of 270 million ($2 million) for the current season, which was upheld in arbitration. A triple crown will likely put pressure on the Dragons to increase Ochiai's pay, sportswriters here say.
A spokesman for the Dragons declined to discuss "such speculation."
Ochiai is only the second player in Japanese baseball history to go to salary arbitration, which drew wide media coverage here. The other player was an American. He lost too.
Ochiai, who as the game's highest-paid player will earn 220 million yen ($1.63 million) this year, is one of only three Japanese players who make 100 million yen ($740,740) a year or more. About three dozen former U.S. major league and minor league baseball players earn more than $3 million a year.
The Dragons finished fourth last year, and Ochiai failed to make good on his yearly pledge to win the triple crown. But he still hit 34 homers and drove in 102 runs to lead the league, while his .290 batting average was 13th.
The 13-year veteran won the Pacific League triple crown three times while with the Lotte Orions. Through last season, Ochiai has a career .323 batting average, 376 home runs and 1,057 RBIs.