Hoshino places faith in Olympic qualifiers

by Jason Coskrey and Kaz Nagatsuka

Japan announced its 24-man baseball roster for the Beijing Olympics during a press conference at a Tokyo hotel on Thursday afternoon.

Nippon Ham ace Yu Darvish and Tokyo Yakult’s Norichika Aoki were among the players named to the team, many of whom also played in the Olympic qualifying tournament this past December in Taiwan, and will try to capture the nation’s first Olympic gold medal since baseball became an official medal sport in 1992.

“After last December’s Olympic qualifier, I told the players, ‘Let’s see you in Beijing,’ manager Senichi Hoshino said.

“So we wanted to pick players from that team as much as possible.

“As coach (Koji) Yamamoto said, two-thirds of the members experienced (the Olympic qualifier).”

The Japan manager kept his faith in Yomiuri Giants pitcher Koji Uehara in naming him to the team.

Uehara is currently in the midst of one of his worst seasons as a professional, going 2-4 with a 6.46 ERA in 14 starts for the Giants.

The veteran’s experience was likely a deciding factor in his selection despite his dip in form this season.

Uehara is unbeaten in 23 appearances in international competition with 12 wins and a save.

“Considering his past experience and pitching style . . . well, I understand if you saw yesterday’s game, it’d make you worried,” Hoshino said, referring to Wednesday’s game against the Chunichi Dragons during which Uehara was charged with three runs without recording an out.

“I was sending encouragement such as, ‘Hold them,’ while watching it on TV, but he showed the opposite outcome. But we’ll revive him during the one-week training camp.”

The team will hold its training camp from Aug. 2-5 at Giants Stadium in Kawasaki and practice once more on Aug. 7 at Tokyo Dome. The team will then play a pair of exhibition games against a select group of NPB players Aug. 8-9 at Tokyo Dome.

Hoshino also announced Shinya Miyamoto will captain the squad in Beijing.

“Of course, it’s Shinya,” Hoshino said when asked who the team’s captain would be. “Far from being on the verge of making the team or not, he’s had great numbers this year. He’s actually had top-class numbers among this squad. We also expect him to show leadership.”

Darvish headlines the 10-man pitching staff which also includes Chiba Lotte’s Yoshihisa Naruse, Fukuoka Softbank’s Toshiya Sugiuchi and closers Kyuji Fujikawa of Hanshin and Chunichi’s Hitoki Iwase, among others.

“We’ve chosen great pitchers, and we selected guys that we believe can come through in a short tournament, not just guys with abilities,” pitching coach Yutaka Ono said.

“A strong, unyielding heart is real important because we have tough battles ahead. We’re going to try not to yield mentally.”

In the absence of any true setup men, a number of hurlers who are regular starters for their individual teams will come out of the bullpen in Beijing.

“We thought about 11 (pitchers), but made it 10 after all,” Ono said.

“We believe we made a balanced selection. It seems there are many starting pitchers and there aren’t many set-uppers. But from now on, as the pitching coach, I’m going to make (relievers).”

Takahiro Arai, who was Japan’s standout player during the Asian qualifying tournament, was named to the squad despite his uncertain status due to injuries. The Hanshin star has been one of Japanese baseball’s top players this season.

“Arai played in last year’s qualifier as well and we’ve been worried,” Hoshino said.

“But coach Yamamoto has known him since he was young and he said, ‘the guy gets the job done.’

“He also took the pressure of being the cleanup hitter for Japan (in the qualifier). I believe that he’s had better numbers this year because of the experience of last year. I actually phoned him yesterday, though, and he replied, ‘I promise I’ll make myself ready in time.’ “

The coaching staff already has a somewhat rough outline of how it wants the Japan lineup to shape up. Coach Koichi Tabuchi admitted the Olympic lineup would look a lot like the lineup the team used during the Asian qualifying tournament. much (will change),” Tabuchi said. “(Tsuyoshi) Nishioka will be the leadoff. That guy is a type of a guy that wants to step in the brand-new batter’s box with his shoes.”

Aoki is hitting third (for the Swallows, so it shouldn’t be a problem for him to take the spot). In that respect, we’re not going to change the lineup drastically. But as for the DH spot, sometimes (Shinnosuke) Abe could take it, it could be G.G. (Sato) as the manager mentioned.

“We played together in the qualifier, and it’s pretty natural that we wanted to have the players from the team. We’ve added (Hiroyuki) Nakajima and G.G. as new players and left out Ben-chan (Kazuhiro Wada) and Saburo (Omura). Saburo was hard to abandon, but the fact he was injured . . . (played a role in this decision).”

The Beijing Games could possibly mark the last time baseball is played at the Olympics as the sport was voted out for the 2012 London Games. The possibility remains that the sport could return in 2016.

Japan, which earned bronze in 2004 in Athens, begins its quest for gold on Aug. 13 against Cuba.

Japan’s roster

Pitchers

Koji Uehara (Yomiuri Giants), Kenshin Kawakami, Hitoki Iwase (Chunichi Dragons), Kyuji Fujikawa (Hanshin Tigers), Yu Darvish (Nippon Ham Fighters), Yoshihisa Naruse (Lotte Marines), Tsuyoshi Wada, Toshiya Sugiuchi (Softbank Hawks), Masahiro Tanaka (Rakuten Eagles), Hideaki Wakui (Seibu Lions)

Catchers

Shinnosuke Abe (Yomiuri Giants), Akihiro Yano (Hanshin Tigers), Tomoya Satozaki (Lotte Marines)

Infielders

Masahiro Araki (Chunichi Dragons), Takahiro Arai (Hanshin Tigers), Shuichi Murata (Yokohama BayStars), Shinya Miyamoto (Yakult Swallows), Tsuyoshi Nishioka (Lotte Marines), Munenori Kawasaki (Softbank Hawks), Hiroyuki Nakajima (Seibu Lions)

Outfielders

Masahiko Morino (Chunichi Dragons), Norichika Aoki (Yakult Swallows), Atsunori Inaba (Nippon Ham Fighters), Takahiko G.G. Sato (Seibu Lions)