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‘Hoshino Japan’ shakes off injury concerns as preparations heat up

by Jason Coskrey and Kaz Nagatsuka

The Olympics haven’t started yet, but “Hoshino Japan” has already dodged a bullet.

In the days leading up to the NPB’s All-Star break, injuries threatened to undermine the national team’s quest for a gold medal before it began.

So manager Senichi Hoshino likely breathed a sigh of relief following the All-Star series after most of his team made it to Japan’s training camp (relatively) healthy.

Hanshin Tigers first baseman Takahiro Arai (back), Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka (shoulder) and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters outfielder Atsunori Inaba (buttocks) were among the walking wounded who have recovered enough to make it to Japan’s pre-Olympic camp.

Yokohama BayStars third baseman Shuichi Murata was the exception on the first day of camp and is currently not with the team due to the flu.

Hoshino is hoping the players can continue to get healthy while preparing to chase Japan’s first gold medal since baseball became an official Olympic sport in 1992.

“While you have to tune up your condition, you have to be well prepared as well,” Inaba said after Friday’s All-Star game in Yokohama.

Neither Arai nor Inaba showed any ill effects during the All-Star series. Both played in both games with Arai going 1-for-3 and Inaba finishing the series 2-for-4.

“I am OK now,” Arai said in an interview during Friday’s game.

While Arai and Inaba were expected to be ready for Beijing, Tanaka, whose injury was the most recent, was a question mark. He had a good showing in his brief All-Star series appearance, however, retiring all four batters he faced on 13 pitches on Friday.

“I’ve been making (people) worry, but I think I was able to show that I’m fine today,” Tanaka said. “I was told that maybe I’ve gotten better than I was before the injury. I could pitch with better mechanics today. I’d like to keep (doing) it.

“It was only an inning, but I feel good that I could pitch firmly.”

It was feared Tanaka would not be fit enough to make the trip to Beijing, but so far everything is going smoothly.

“After today, I got rid of it (worries that he would not play)” Tanaka said. “Hopefully, I would like to pitch for a longer time. I’m pretty optimistic that I will be fine.”

As the players prepare to head to Beijing, they are also aware of the teams they will each leave behind as the NPB pennant races begin to heat up.

“Everybody is always rooting for us,” Inaba said. “So I’d like to push myself by not being afraid. No matter what the outcome will be. But I am certainly aware of the team (the Fighters).”

The two teams at the top of the NPB standings stand to be among the hardest hit during the Olympics.

In the Pacific League, first-place Seibu loses a big chunk of its offense in Takehiko G.G. Sato (.309, 21 home runs, 62 RBIs) and Hiroyuki Nakajima (.343, 18, 68). The front-running Lions also lose starting pitcher Hideaki Wakui (8-8, 3.38) to the Olympic squad.

The Lions lost their first game without the trio, falling 4-3 to the Chiba Lotte Marines on Sunday.

In the CL, Hanshin’s 9 1/2-game lead (through Sunday’s games) may come in handy as the Tigers lose Arai, catcher Akihiro Yano and closer Kyuji Fujikawa while also in the midst of their annual extended road trip during the National High School Championship at Koshien.

“It’ll be a loss from the team,” Hanshin veteran Tomoaki Kanemoto said. “But everybody’s making the effort and I’d like the Olympic team to do good in Beijing as well. Hopefully, we can make it where they (Arai, Yano and Fujikawa) won’t have to worry about us too much.”

The Tigers didn’t miss a beat without their Olympians on Sunday, routing the BayStars 19-2 in Yokohama.

With the injury scares in the past, the national team can now focus solely on its preparations for the Olympic baseball tournament.

“I think once we get together and see other players’ faces, we will feel tense,” Murata said. “It’ll be different from the pennant race and moreover it won’t be held in Japan. I’d like to put pressure on myself both mentally and physically and tuneup for Beijing.”