One day after its historic 14-2 called-game victory over archrival South Korea, clinching a berth to the second round of the World Baseball Classic, Team Japan took a light workout on Sunday afternoon at Tokyo Dome.
With Latin music playing in the stadium, the Japanese fielders casually went through batting practice in cages and took the field with their gloves on to catch some balls.
Most of the fielders — including one of Saturday’s heroes, Ichiro Suzuki, who had three hits — did not seem to be swinging hard. Instead they were focusing on making contact with the ball in the core of their bats to make sure their improving offense, which earned Japan’s second win on Saturday night, is on the right track.
In the right field, Atsunori Inaba, who was left out of the starting lineup against South Korea because he had not hit well against that nation’s lefty starting pitcher, Kim Kwang Hyun, in last year’s Beijing Olympics, was trying to catch a fly ball behind his back.
Late in the two-hour workout, meanwhile, pitching coach Tsuyoshi Yoda put a glove on, picked up a ball and had bench coach Tsutomu Ito start an instant “pitching practice.”
It started out as a normal catch but eventually Yoda began tossing harder balls, and it ended up with Ito, a former Seibu Lions 16-time All-Star catcher, sitting like his old days.
“Maybe I’ll pitch in the States,” Yoda joked.
But the easygoing, carefree practice did not mean that the defending WBC champ is too loose after earning a ticket to America.
Japan will play South Korea in Monday’s final game of the Asia round to determine the first and second seed.
Samurai Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said his squad wants to proudly march into baseball’s motherland as the first seed by defeating Monday’s opponent.
“There’s a long way ahead,” Hara said. “No matter what the situation is, our goal is to win (the tournament).”
Yet he praised his players for what they did the previous night against South Korea, adding jokingly that it’s not an easy job to arrange his batting lineup with the group of all-star players.
“Yesterday, each of the players got his job done to the best of his abilities,” Hara said.
Two of the heroes of Saturday’s game were Yokohama BayStars duo Shuichi Murata and Seiichi Uchikawa, who drove in three runs with a second-inning dinger and two runs, respectively.
Murata, the Central League home run king in the last two seasons, in particular has shone as he gave a boost to the team with homers in each of the two games the team has played, wiping away the nightmare of the Beijing Games, in which he went just 2-for-23 without any RBIs.
“I didn’t expect to hit a home run this time of year,” smiled Murata, who hit in the cleanup spot against South Korea. “But I got myself ready 100 percent for this tournament. I think I’ve been able to exhibit my own way of batting. We hope to give Japanese fellas relief and go to America.”
Instead of any lingering joy of victory, Uchikawa seemingly had more a sense of urgency. The right-handed hitter was believed to have started on Saturday as a countermeasure to South Korea’s left- handed “Japan Killer” Kim.
“I’d like to get myself ready,” said Uchikawa, who drove in two runs with his double in his first official at-bat in a Japan jersey, “because I had the hit only.”
“But if I can’t hit against a left-handed pitcher, I won’t be given an opportunity to play in a game,” said the 26-year-old, the Central League’s reigning batting champion who held the highest batting average as a right-handed hitter at .378.
“I’d like to be used even against right-handers.”
For Monday’s game, pitching coach Hisashi Yamada confirmed Hisashi Iwakuma, a 21-game winner of 2008, will start.
“I’m ready,” the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles right-hander said. “I hope to carry on the momentum for our team.”