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Steady, reliable Iwakuma played big role in Japan’s WBC title defense

by Kaz Nagatsuka

The Japanese baseball national team has accomplished another great feat in the just-wrapped-up World Baseball Classic, and made a triumphant return to its homeland on Wednesday.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, a Boston Red Sox hurler, once again received the the Most Valuable Player award for his second straight super tournament.

But the March 5-23 extravaganza heralded other players who should be recognized from Samurai Japan.

What follows are The Japan Times’ special awards for Tatsunori Hara’s team:

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Hisashi Iwakuma.

The 27-year-old right-hander was the most reliable and consistent starting pitcher, more so than Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish throughout the tournament, although he only had one win (against Cuba in the second round). The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace, who was named the starter for the final against South Korea on March 23, posted a 1.35 ERA, the second-lowest figure in that category (at least two starts) in the tourney.

After all, his MVP- and Sawamura Award-winning season in 2008 wasn’t a fluke. If Japan had won the title game 3-2 in a regulation nine-inning contest with Iwakuma getting the win, he may have been the MVP instead of Dice-K.

OUTSTANDING PERFORMERS: Norichika Aoki and Hiroyuki Nakajima.

A career .338 hitter in the NPB, Aoki got on base a number of times by chopping hits all over the field. And since Ichiro Suzuki was a disappointment for most of the tournament, even though he had a terrific night in the final game, Aoki was one of the most dependable hitters on Samurai Japan.

A native of Miyazaki Prefecture, Aoki made the all-WBC team after the tournament as well.

While Aoki started every game batting in the No. 3 spot, Nakajima had to miss the first two games of the second round due to a fever he picked up during the team’s training camp in Arizona. But the Seibu Lions shortstop still helped the national team in many different ways as the second batter in the lineup.

Nakajima is said to be a Japanese Derek Jeter for the Lions, utilizing his natural smoothness in batting and fielding, but he surely performed better than the the United States captain.

BEST HUSTLER: Seiichi Uchikawa.

Despite having a spectacular season by posting the NPB’s best batting average (.378) for a right-handed hitter in 2008, the 26-year-old hasn’t become a household name. But Hara put him in his lineup in a handful of games when Japan confronted southpaws.

His spectacular defensive play in left field in the fifth inning of the final, in which he made an incredible catch and a perfect throw to second base, left a great impression on Japanese fans and enhanced his reputation along the way.

In the title game, he also set the table for Ichiro’s game-winning RBI single by leading off the 10th inning with a hit.

BEST ENERGIZERS: Kenji Johjima and Munenori Kawasaki.

Although they weren’t the center of attention on the star-studded squad, they kept cheering and encouraging the entire team, and that was really appreciated. Johjima and Kawasaki were always vigorous and vocal both in games and workouts, helping their teammates laugh and smile.

Johjima started every game and made big contributions on offense, batting .333 with four RBIs. Behind the plate, Johjima’s veteran leadership and skills in working with the pitching staff paid off in a big way.

Kawasaki, a starter at shortstop in the inaugural championships in 2006, started in just one game but was not depressed. Instead, he devoted himself to assisting other players from the bench.

MOST RELIABLE MAN: Toshiya Sugiuchi.

Usually a starting pitcher, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks hurler did not voice any complaints while working as a reliever and had a stellar tournament in the WBC. In five appearances, the left-hander did not give up a hit in 6 1/3 innings, and he often cut off opponents’ offensive surges. His cool-headed pitching helped Hara Japan’s quest for the title.

HEARTBREAKER: Takahiro Mahara.

Another Hawk, Mahara made five appearances, but frankly it was hard to understand why he got that many. He never finished an inning without allowing a hit. He almost blew the semifinal game against Team USA, when he came in as a middle reliever in the eighth with Japan leading 6-2 but gave up two runs on an RBI double to Mark DeRosa.

BEST WIRE-PULLER: Nobuhiro Takashiro.

The 54-year-old’s masterful use of a fungo bat helped the team’s defense in the infield to a great degree. As a matter of fact, the infielders almost never committed errors.

He was also the third-base coach and made excellent judgment on whether he should advance runners or stop them at second and third base.