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Japanese ballplayers relish chance to test skills against MLB competition

by Jason Coskrey

Playing against the World Series champions apparently didn’t impress Hanshin Tigers outfielder Ikuro Katsuragi too much late Saturday morning.

With the game less than an hour away, Katsuragi was lounging leisurely on the Tokyo Dome floor reading a game program as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

It was further evidence that in the era of Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka, Japanese players are no longer in awe of their major league counterparts. They were, however, excited about the chance to show off their skills against some of the best players in the world.

“I’m not nervous at all,” Hanshin shortstop Takashi Toritani said before the game. “I have heard of (Jason) Varitek and (David) Ortiz. I am looking forward to playing this game.”

There are a number of Japanese players that have dreams of following the path that Masanori Murakami and Hideo Nomo blazed and joining Ichiro, Matsuzaka and their other countrymen in Major League Baseball.

So the opportunity to test their skills against big league competition is something many of the Japanese players relish.

“These guys are excited about it,” said Tigers reliever Jeff Williams, who did not pitch against the Red Sox but will play against the A’s on Sunday. “For me, I’ve been there and done that so I told them (the Hanshin coaches) to give me the night off. One game is enough. But I know that these guys are excited to show them what they’ve got.”

Tiger closer Kyuji Fujikawa is one of the players that has expressed interest in one day playing in the major leagues. Fujikawa made the most of his opportunity against Boston, striking out two, with flashbulbs going off before every pitch, in a scoreless ninth inning.

“I know his background,” Boston manager Terry Francona said. “I know he’s been a very successful closer here. His velocity was good. I know it’s been better in the past. I know he’s had a good career here.”

The series provides the players with a great opportunity to experience a few of the nuances of the major league game that are different from how things are done in Japanese baseball.

“The MLB strike zone is slightly different from ours,” Hanshin pitcher Yuya Ando said after facing the Red Sox. “This was a good experience for me today.”

The exhibition series also provides a unique opportunity for the foreign players on the Japanese teams to catch up with old friends and coaches.

“I actually signed a minor-league contract with the Red Sox before I came here,” Hanshin pitcher Dennis Atchison said. “So I could have easily been here today on the other side.

Giants Marc Kroon and Alex Ramirez had long visits with the A’s players. Ramirez, who played one of his first major league games against Oakland, recounted the time he doubled of former Oakland Ace Mark Mulder early in his career.

Tiger outfielder Lew Ford, who robbed the Red Sox of two runs with a superb running catch, was also fired up for the game.

“I like it,” Ford said. “To play against Americans. The Boston starter (Clay Buchholz) is from the same part of Texas as I am. So I want to do good so I can say something to him.”

Hanshin fell behind early but clawed its way back, eventually falling 6-5 against the Red Sox in an entertaining matchup.

The Giants were scheduled to get their shot at the A’s in Saturday’s night game.

“I’ve played against major leaguers before, Giants outfielder Takayuki Shimizu said before facing the A’s. I faced them (major league players) in 2004. So I am very excited to play this game tonight.”