/ |

Iwakuma hopes to help Japan retain WBC title

by Jason Coskrey

In the midst of the greatest individual season of his career, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma was left off Japan’s Olympic roster.

With any luck, the Pacific League MVP can show the Japanese baseball brain trust the error of its ways at the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

Japan released a provisional roster for the WBC on Tuesday and this time Iwakuma’s name was on it.

So the reigning MVP is beginning his preparations for the season a little early to adjust for the additional workload of the WBC and aiming to earn a spot on manager Tatsunori Hara’s final squad.

“It’s very competitive to make the final roster,” Iwakuma told Japanese media on Wednesday. “So I want to prepare well.”

Iwakuma threw 37 pitches in his first bullpen session of the new year and reported his shoulder, a major injury concern in the past, felt OK and that his balance was good.

One of the reasons for his Olympic snub was attributed to the fact he hasn’t had much success at the international level.

Unlike Koji Uehara, who was selected for the Olympic squad largely at Iwakuma’s expense due to a flawless international record, the right-hander has been shelled on the international level, putting his mind-set in question.

He has likely earned a chance at redemption on the world stage with stellar season for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles last year when he won the Pacific League MVP and Sawamura awards.

Despite his recent accolades, Iwakuma will probably fly under the radar — as much as an MVP winner can that is — when Japan begins its preparations to defend the WBC title. Should he make the final roster, of course.

Boston Red Sox hurler Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hokkaido Nippon Ham ace Yu Darvish will likely share all the early headlines at Japan’s WBC training camp.

Matsuzaka was considered one of Japan’s best before he went to Boston in 2006 and became a top pitcher on a World Series champion. Darvish, meanwhile, has taken up Dice-K’s mantle in Japan, going 27-10 over the past two seasons with a Japan Series title, Sawamura Award and Pacific League MVP to his credit.

Iwakuma was hindered by a shoulder injury for much of the 2005, ’06 and ’07 seasons before regaining his form last year. Finally healthy in ’08, he took the NPB by storm by going 21-4 with a 1.87 ERA.

All 16 participating nations in this year’s WBC showed their early hands with the announcement of their provisional rosters on Tuesday.

As defending champion Japan enters with a bulls eye on its back and the pressure of defending its title.

“Samurai Japan” will also be tasked with helping erase the memories of a disappointing finish in Beijing.

The 2009 World Baseball Classic begins March 5 at Tokyo Dome.