Angels star Shohei Ohtani receives a trophy from general manager Perry Minasian (left) as he is honored as the team’s 2023 MVP during a pregame ceremony at Angel Stadium on Saturday. (Kyodo News)

Rafu Wire Service and Staff Reports

ANAHEIM — Shohei Ohtani became the first Japanese player to lead a U.S. major league in home runs, capturing the American League title with 44 on Sunday, the last day of the regular season.

The two-way star achieved the feat despite playing in just 135 games before undergoing season-ending elbow surgery last month.

He is the first Japanese player to win an MLB batting crown since 2004, when Ichiro Suzuki led both leagues in average and claimed his second AL batting title as a member of the Seattle Mariners.

“Thinking about the great Japanese players who have played in the U.S. major leagues until now, it’s both humbling and a great honor. I’m grateful to my teammates and fans,” Ohtani said in a statement.

Ohtani, who on Saturday was named the Angels’ team MVP for the third straight season, is the overwhelming favorite to be named this year’s AL MVP for the second time.

He posted a .304 batting average, a .412 on-base percentage and a .654 slugging average, all highs in his six-year MLB career. He went 10-5 as a pitcher with a 3.14 ERA and struck out 167 batters in 132 innings, and is expected to sign a record contract as an MLB free agent over the winter.

Ohtani watched from the dugout Sunday as the Angels wrapped up their season with a 7-3 win over the Oakland Athletics. The Halos finished fourth in the AL West with a 73-89 record, plummeting out of playoff contention after being in the hunt at the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

This year, Ohtani’s 44 homers were fourth in MLB behind the 54 hit by Atlanta’s Matt Olson, but he led the AL by five over Texas’ Adolis Garcia’s 39.

In 2021, when Ohtani was the AL’s unanimous choice for MVP, he hit a career-high 46 homers and finished third in the AL and MLB, two behind Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero

and Kansas City’s Salvador Perez.

Ohtani appeared on track to surpass that figure when he hit his 44th in the Angels’ second game against Cincinnati on Aug. 23. That was also the last day he pitched, leaving the

opener after facing just four batters for what turned out to be ligament damage in his right elbow.

Although he continued as the Angels’ designated hitter, Ohtani’s season ended during pre-game batting practice on Sept. 4, when he suffered an oblique muscle injury.

When it became clear he would be unable to return to the lineup as a hitter, Ohtani underwent surgery on his right elbow, the same one that was surgically repaired after his 2018 MLB debut season.

After surgery, he is hoping to hit exclusively in 2024 and return to being a two-way player in 2025.

Japanese baseball luminaries Hideki Kuriyama and Sadaharu Oh on Monday lauded Ohtani’s achievement.

World Baseball Classic-winning skipper Kuriyama, who gave Ohtani his professional debut in an unprecedented two-way role at the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2013, said the

29-year-old had achieved another major milestone.

“He ventured into MLB pledging to become the best player in the world and he keeps going, clearing one hurdle at a time. That’s something that makes me really happy,”

said the 62-year-old Kuriyama, who lifted the WBC trophy with Ohtani in March.

Kuriyama is sure Ohtani will  make a strong recovery from surgery.

“I believe he’ll continue to have tough moments ahead, but overcoming those is what Shohei is all about. I’m looking forward to seeing him power his way through and provide us with the new scenery that comes after it,” Kuriyama said.

Oh, Japan’s all-time home run leader with 868, said he was in awe of the heights Ohtani has reached.

A Japanese player winning an MLB home run title “was unthinkable around a decade ago,” the 83-year-old said. “He’s become a respected batter in the United States too, and put himself in a position where he will remain in the history of baseball.”

By writing his name in the baseball record books with the latest feat, Ohtani has also changed the perception of Japanese batters. Japanese position players had never contended for home run honors until Ohtani hit 46 in 2021. Before that, New York Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui’s 31 in 2004, which was 12 short of the AL lead that year, was the best they managed.

Ohtani has been putting great emphasis on weight training from his time at Nippon Ham, with his Samurai Japan teammate and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar stunned to see him squatting 500 pounds in the gym.

Nootbaar wraps the 2023 season with a .261 batting average and 14 home runs in 117 games for the Cardinals, who finished last in the NL Central.

With his home runs traveling an average of 423 feet, among the furthest in the majors, Ohtani’s outside batting practice has become a spectacle in its own right, as he effortlessly launches one ball after another into the stands.

“You cannot become a home run hitter without having the ability to hit far. He kept striving and built a body that does not get beaten (against MLB pitchers),” Oh said. “He can go on for another 15 years. I hope he wins another home run title.”

News of Ohtani’s title was warmly welcomed in his home city of Oshu in Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan, where a banner was hung from the municipal office building and a local paper handed out an extra 49,000 editions to residents throughout the prefecture.

“He hasn’t changed from our time together, enjoying his baseball and treasuring his sleep,” said Daiki Sasaki, Ohtani’s teammate at Hanamaki Higashi High School. “He came back even stronger after an injury during his time in high school. I’m sure he’ll turn the latest one into a positive too.”

• • •

Masataka Yoshida set a Boston Red Sox rookie record with his 50th multi-hit game in Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Baltimore Orioles.

Japanese compatriot Seiya Suzuki, meanwhile, fell short of the playoffs with the Chicago Cubs as the Miami Marlins clinched the third and final National League Wild Card berth.

Batting fourth as designated hitter, Yoshida went 3-for-5 with an RBI in the penultimate game of the season against the American League East division champions at Oriole Park.

He drove in Boston’s final run with a fluke ninth-inning double off Baltimore reliever Jacob Webb on a flare hit just over the second baseman.

Despite getting three hits for the first time since Sept. 23, the 30-yearold former Orix Buffaloes star was not satisfied with his performance.

“Identifying pitches is one of the things I still need to improve,” Yoshida said.

Yoshida’s strong rookie campaign has been a bright spot in a disappointing year for the Red Sox, who finish at the bottom of the AL East.

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