Matsuzaka, Nakamura give Japan a shot at gold in baseball

by Yukiko Ohmura

Baseball is one of only three team competitions Japan will be contesting in Sydney (along with men’s soccer and softball), and Japan has a good chance of taking a medal home just as it did in Barcelona (bronze) and Atlanta (silver). The question is, what color will it be this time?

At Sydney, baseball is open to pro players for the first time since it became an official medal sport in 1992. However, the formation of a “Dream Team” became a reality only for the South Koreans who will field a team of 23 pro players and one amateur, while suspending their domestic league in order to let the pros participate.

The United States put together an all-pro team, but the major league players were unavailable, since they are still in the final month of the regular season, and thus the U.S. will bring a team of journeymen and minor league players from the AA and AAA levels.

No Big Mac, no Sosa.

Things are better for Japan, which managed to bring eight pro players into its team. The rest of the squad is comprised of amateurs, and the pros that will be playing are great but not the greatest.

They are no Hideki Matsuis or Ichiro Suzukis.

Which again leaves Cuba as the favorite to win the gold medal for the third straight time. Despite defections by some players to the United States, the world’s best amateur baseball team is looking a good bet to retain the gold.

They still have the powerful lineup that hit 38 HRs and scored 118 runs in nine games at the Atlanta Olympics with the likes of star sluggers Omar Linares, Orestes Kindelan and Antonio Pacheco.

If anything is to put a halt to the Big Red Machine of amateur baseball, it may be the wooden bats that will be used instead of steel ones beginning with this tournament.

These four teams and Australia are the top five that are likely to be battling for the four spots in the semifinals after a round-robin preliminary round. The Netherlands, South Africa and Italy round out the eight-team field.

Japan team manager: Kozo Otagaki

Pitchers:

* Tomohiro Kuroki 26 years old, Lotte Marines, 178 cm, 74 kg. Lotte’s ace pitcher Kuroki is having a poor season (7-11, 5.92 ERA), but the Olympic atmosphere may give the fiery hurler some additional motivation.

* Daisuke Matsuzaka 19 yrs old, Seibu Lions, 180 cm, 78 kg. Rookie of the Year and wins leader of the Pacific League last season, Matsuzaka was the teen sensation of Japanese baseball. At 12-6 so far this year, Matsuzaka’s a bit inconsistent. However, when it comes to do or die games he can really perform, and that is what he will be expected to do. Likely to start in key games against the U.S., Cuba, South Korea.

* Masato Kawano 22 yrs old, Hiroshima Carp, 185 cm, 83 kg. Tough pitcher who has been a setup man/closer this season for the Carp.

* Masanori Sugiura 32 yrs old, Nihon Seimei, 180 cm, 82 kg. ‘Mr. Olympic baseball’ will be making his third straight appearance in the Games. Toshiya Sugiuchi–19 yrs old. Mitsubishi Juko Nagasaki. 175 cm, 77 kg. Teen lefty who made his Japan debut in the Four Nations Tournament held in Taiwan early this year. Shunsuke Watanabe–24 yrs old. Shin Nippon Seitetsu Kimitsu. 177 cm, 70 kg. Throws sidearm quite well.

* Yoshikazu Doi 30 yrs old, Nihon Seimei, 176 cm, 70 kg.

* Akichika Yamada 21 yrs old, Ritsumeikan University, 183 cm, 85 kg.

* Yuji Yoshimi 22 yrs old, Tohoku Fukushi University, 188 cm, 86 kg. Lefty.

* Masanori Ishikawa 20 yrs old, Aoyama Gakuin University, 169 cm, 58 kg. Lefty.

Catchers:

* Fumihiro Suzuki 25 yrs old, Chunichi Dragons, 181 cm, 72 kg. Has come up big repeatedly for the Dragons in role as backup catcher.

* Shinnosuke Abe 21 yrs old, Chuo University, 180 cm, 84 kg. Bats left. Has an extremely strong throwing arm and is as equally talented as a batter. May even start.

* Kosuke Noda 22 yrs old, Shin Nippon Seitetsu Kimitsu, 180 cm, 82 kg.

Infielders:

* Norihiro Nakamura 27 yrs old, Kintetsu Buffaloes, 180 cm, 78 kg. Nakamura has blossomed into one of the leading Pacific League sluggers the past two seasons, and this year he has a chance to win the home run title. Will bat cleanup.

* Nobuhiko Matsunaka 26 yrs old, Daiei Hawks, 183 cm, 94 kg. Bats left. One of the key players for Daiei, Matsunaka was the cleanup hitter for Japan during the Atlanta Games, where he slammed five HRs and had 16 RBIs.

* Yukio Tanaka 32 yrs old, Nippon Ham Fighters, 184 cm, 94 kg. Oldest player on the team. A talented athlete with finesse and power. Likely to be DH.

* Yoshinori Okihara 28 yrs old, NTT Higashi Nippon, 177 cm, 75 kg. Could be the starter at shortstop.

* Jun Heima 25 yrs old, Toshiba, 176 cm, 80 kg. Delivered the “sayonara” run against Taiwan with a pinch hit that granted Japan a berth in the Olympics.

* Osamu Nogami 26 yrs old, Nihon Seimei, 167 cm, 66 kg.

Outfielders:

* So Taguchi 31 yrs old, Orix BlueWave, 177 cm, 71 kg. A reliable outfielder who runs well and is solid defensively. Does not have great power, but is a steady hitter.

* Yoshihiko Kajiyama 30 yrs old, Mitsubishi Jidosha Kawasaki, 187 cm, 78 kg. Bats left. Was captain of the team during the qualifiers.

* Norihiro Akahoshi 24 yrs old, JR Higashi Nippon, 170 cm, 65 kg. Bats left. Runs extremely well. Could be a threat as a pinch runner.

* Tomohiro Iizuka 24 yrs old, NTT Higashi Nippon, 163 cm, 70 kg. Bats left.

* Jun Hirose 21 yrs old, Hosei University, 181 cm, 85 kg. A young and powerful slugger.