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Darvish, young pitchers set to play vital role in WBC title defense

by Jason Coskrey

Established pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hisashi Iwakuma will lead defending champion Samurai Japan into the World Baseball Classic, but a host of young arms may end up deciding the nation’s place in the baseball world.

With 22-year-old Hokkaido Nippon Ham ace Yu Darvish leading the way, Japan manager Tatsunori Hara named five pitchers age 25 or under to the WBC roster.

Joining Darvish are Seibu Lions ace Hideaki Wakui (22) Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles hurler Masahiro Tanaka (20), Yomiuri Giants reliever Tetsuya Yamaguchi (25) and Hanshin Tigers pitcher Minoru Iwata (25).

It’s a risky proposition for Japan to rely on so many youngsters on such a big stage. Especially since, unlike the Olympic baseball tournament, the WBC will feature a large number of major league ballplayers.

The WBC will be the biggest stage for many, if not all, of Japan’s youngsters and how they handle the pressure in key situations could be the difference between winning and losing.

Pitching is regarded as one of Japan’s greatest strengths and that notion will be tested as the princes of the sport step into the spotlight.

With Darvish and Wakui, Hara likely already knows what to expect.

Each is regarded as the ace of their respective team. Both are also Japan Series winners and have pitched in the Olympics.

It’s after those two where Japan must tread lightly.

Tanaka lacks NPB playoff experience but was a bright spot at the Olympics during a couple of very brief outings.

The young righty is powerful, can record strikeouts in bunches (196 for Rakuten during the 2008 campaign) and could be vital in relief.

Iwata’s last outing was likely the biggest of his three-year professional career and helped elevate him onto this stage.

In his last start, Iwata threw eight innings of one-hit ball, striking out six in the deciding game of the first stage of the Central League Climax Series on Oct. 20 in Osaka.

A late addition to the provisional roster, Iwata possesses an assortment of curves and sliders that have helped lead to his emergence as one of the NPB’s top young arms.

Reigning CL Rookie of the Year Tetsuya Yamaguchi last pitched in Game 6 of the Japan Series. Yamaguchi, who played three seasons of rookie ball for the Missoula Osprey (Arizona Diamondbacks affiliate) in the Pioneer League, will be embarking on his maiden voyage at this level.

Japan is also stocked with veterans such as Boston Red Sox pitcher and 2006 WBC MVP Matsuzaka, Shunsuke Watanabe (Chiba Lotte Marines), 2008 Pacific League MVP Iwakuma (Rakuten), Toshiya Sugiuchi (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks) and closers Kyuji Fujikawa (Hanshin) and Takahiro Mahara (Softbank).

Hara also left 26-year-old Yomiuri Giants starter Tetsuya Utsumi and 27-year-old PL Rookie of the Year Satoshi Komatsu of the Orix Buffaloes on the final squad.

With the exception of Darvish and possibly Wakui, it will be the veterans that will shoulder the load as starters and early relievers.

But it could be the young lions that are charged with keeping Japan in games through the middle to late (or extra) innings and getting the ball to the the team’s closers.

That could be a lot of pressure for a 20-something pitcher on, with respect to the Olympics, what is now the game’s biggest stage with top players from the world’s top professional leagues, including the MLB.

In baseball, and sports in general, it’s best to expect the unexpected, and Japan could very well see one of its younger members on the hill in a huge situation.

Matsuzaka can’t pitch every game, and neither can Darvish nor Iwakuma. So every pitcher will be vital to the cause.

Knowing full well a repeat of the Beijing fiasco that was Hoshino Japan this past summer is unacceptable, Hara is gambling on a mini-youth movement to help restore Japan’s wounded pride.

Only time will tell whether or not the young hurlers can handle the responsibility.

Former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt once remarked, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

For Japanese baseball the future begins on March 5, the opening day of the WBC.