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Questions still linger for Japan

by Hiroki Noda

Kyodo News

Japan won a ticket to what could be the final baseball tournament in the Olympic Games with the Asian Championship victory in early December, led by strong pitching, solid defense and timely hitting.

While some baseball observers respect the type of baseball Senichi Hoshino’s players showed in the championship — hitting for singles and trying to score one run at a time, instead of swinging for the fences, others are concerned about a lack of power in the lineup.

Japan had a total of 40 hits in beating the Philippines, South Korea and host Taiwan in the Dec. 1-3 final round of the championship in Taichung.

Seven of those were extra-base hits, with three coming from cleanup hitter Takahiro Arai and two from Shinnosuke Abe, who batted fifth and was named the tournament MVP after going 10-for-13 with four RBIs.

Michihiro Ogasawara, Yoshinobu Takahashi and Hitoshi Tamura, who have could hit in the heart of the lineup, had to pull out of the roster because of injuries.

The two Yomiuri Giants players were members of the bronze-winning Athens Olympic team, while Softbank Hawks outfielder Tamura played a significant role in Japan’s World Baseball Classic victory in March 2006.

Their withdrawals put more pressure on the pitchers to keep opponents from scoring, in addition to the tournament’s tiebreaker rules that put an emphasis on the defensive part of the game.

Hideaki Wakui, Yoshihisa Naruse and Yu Darvish were all expected to put up quality starts, or at least keep the team in the game if they did not last six innings.

Wakui, the Pacific League’s winningest pitcher with 17 wins in 2007, threw a one-hitter over six scoreless innings in a 10-0 win over the Philippines.

Naruse, who led the PL with a 1.817 ERA and a .941 winning percentage (16-1), was relieved by Chunichi Dragons ace Kenshin Kawakami with two outs in the fourth inning against South Korea but left with a 3-2 lead. Japan went on for a 4-3 win in a four-hour contest.

PL MVP and Sawamura Award winner Darvish allowed Taiwan to take a 2-1 lead in the sixth inning on a two-run homer by former Los Angeles Dodger Chen Chin-feng, but Japan came right back to score six runs in the seventh on its way to a 10-2 rout of the host.

Darvish became the winning pitcher after working seven solid innings.

The three young pitchers apparently hold the key to Japan’s success in Beijing.

Hoshino has called them “the ones who will lead Japanese baseball in the years to come.” Wakui and Darvish are 21 years old and Naruse 22.

Koji Uehara and Shunsuke Watanabe are the top candidates to join the three starters as the number of games each team plays increases to a maximum of nine in the Olympics from three in the Asian Championship.

Uehara was the closer in Taiwan but is likely to be in the starting rotation in Beijing, in line with a change in his role for Yomiuri following the club’s acquisition of Marc Kroon.

Watanabe was cut when Hoshino reduced the roster to the final 24 players shortly before the Asian Championship final round.

But he was one of the three starters on the WBC team, along with Uehara and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and is one of the rarest and most successful submarine pitchers in the world.

Kawakami and Hiroyuki Kobayashi are also starter candidates and likely will also be used in middle relief.

Hitoki Iwase and Kyuji Fujikawa are expected to handle late-inning duties, while Japan manager Hoshino will see how Kohei Hasebe, who was the only amateur player on the Asian Championship roster, performs in his rookie season with the Rakuten Eagles.

Whether to proceed in bringing the best players to the national team in August when the regular season heats up in Japan is also an issue.

Club owners agreed in January 2007 to provide full support for Hoshino and that there will be no regulations such as two players from each club for the national team in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine, whose team sent six players to the Olympic qualifying tournament, has said national team members should be selected equally from each club.

Japan has appeared in the baseball tournaments of all six previous Olympics, including the 1984 and 1988 Games when the sport was a demonstration event.

Japan beat the United States in the 1984 final in Los Angeles and lost to the United States in the 1988 final in Seoul.

Since baseball became an official medal sport in 1992, Japan has won a silver and two bronzes, with one fourth-place finish.

The International Olympic Committee has decided to drop baseball and softball from the 2012 London Games.

“I know the next one could be the final Olympic baseball competition, so I’ll try to have people around the world rediscover the excitement of the game,” Hoshino said.

“I want to meet the United States in the final because baseball is a national sport for both nations,” he said.

Aside from Japan, the United States, Cuba and the Netherlands have booked their places in the Olympic tournament.

China automatically qualified as host and will be joined by three more teams to be decided at the final qualifying competition next March.