Japan’s Baseball Squad Set to Go For a Third WBC Title

Society Culture

A Japanese Team Takes Shape

Japanese baseball luminaries like to say that in international competition, the main goal is to win by utilizing Japan’s own style of baseball.

Japan manager Yamamoto Kōji has sung the same tune ahead of the 2013 World Baseball Classic, and with a team comprised entirely of Nippon Professional Baseball players, Yamamoto is uniquely positioned to back up the proclamation.

Samurai Japan begins its quest to capture a third consecutive title on March 2. This time it will do so without its Major League stars, who passed on playing, leaving Tōhoku Rakuten Golden Eagles infielder Matsui Kazuo—formerly of the New York Mets, Colorado Rockies, and Houston Astros—as the lone player with MLB experience.

“Some fans want to see MLB players, while others are anxious to see new Japanese talent,” said NPB Commissioner Katō Ryōzō. “By having this kind of team we are giving opportunities and chances to younger Japanese players.”

Yamamoto has done just that, mixing a smattering of veterans into what is mostly a roster of rising stars.

The offense features talented hitters like the Orix Buffaloes’ Itoi Yoshio, an above-average outfielder with a strong arm, who may be Japan’s best all-around player. The 31-year-old has an eye on the Major Leagues and is a .302 hitter with 55 home runs, 245 RBIs, and 117 stolen bases in six NPB seasons.

Yomiuri Giants captain and reigning Central League MVP Abe Shinnosuke, fellow Giants Chōno Hisayoshi and Sakamoto Hayato, and the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks’ Uchikawa Seiichi are also solid players, while power earned Hokkaidō Nippon Ham Fighters slugger Nakata Shō his spot on the team.

“I think Itoi is a very special player,” Australia manager Jon Deeble said after an exhibition series against Japan. “I think Inaba [Atsunori, also of the Fighters], who’s been a batting champion, is a very special player.

“I think you guys have got a very, very even team with good pitching.”

Samurai Japan players celebrate their first-round victory over China in Fukuoka on March 3. Combined with a win against Brazil the previous day, this earned them a trip to the second round of games in Tokyo. (AP/AFLO)


Solid Pitching to Be Key

Still, Japan is not built for a slugfest and will need to utilize speed and awareness on the base paths to manufacture runs.

“That’s a trait we need to keep taking advantage of,” Yamamoto said. “Each player understands what he’s supposed to do in any situation, which makes our decision-making easier.”

The pitching staff is headed by Rakuten’s dynamic Tanaka Masahiro, a 24-year-old right-hander being hailed as Japan’s ace in Darvish Yū’s absence. Tanaka, who touches 90 with his fastball, has a solid array of secondary pitches. He is already firmly on the MLB radar, sporting a 75–35 record with a 2.50 ERA and 1,055 strikeouts over six professional seasons.

Tanaka, winner of the 2011 Sawamura Award (given to NPB’s best pitcher), is joined on a talented staff by fellow Sawamura recipients Sugiuchi Toshiya (2005) of the Giants, the Seibu Lions’ Wakui Hideaki (2009), the Hiroshima Carp’s Maeda Kenta (2010), and Softbank’s Settsu Tadashi (2012).

The tournament setting suits Japan’s pitchers, who aren’t adverse to throwing breaking balls when behind in the count, something even players familiar with Japanese baseball struggle with sometimes.

“I think we struck out ten times on 3–2 pitches, and not one of them was a fastball,” Deeble said after losing to Japan on February 23. “I don’t think we saw a fastball in a hitter’s count. With Tanaka, every 1–0 pitch was a slider, and every time he went 3–2, it was a slider or a split. It was the same with Nōmi [Atsushi] and the same with Sugiuchi. None of those guys threw his fastball when they were behind in the count.”

The 2013 World Baseball Classic sees Japan grouped with Brazil, China, and Cuba for the first round in Fukuoka, beginning on March 2. It is favored to reach the second round in Tokyo (beginning March 8) and the semifinal/final round in San Francisco (March 17), where the title will be up for grabs.

(Originally written in English on February 25, 2013.)

Major Leagues MLB sports baseball WBC World Baseball Classic NPB