FUKUOKA — Craig Brazell didn’t care that he was almost left off the All-Star roster.
All that mattered was when all the players were introduced prior Friday’s Nippon Professional Baseball All-Star Series Game 1, he was out there standing on the foul line alongside everyone else.
The Hanshin Tigers slugger was the final addition to the Central League squad, making his first All-Star roster in Japan after an Internet vote was held to determine the 29th members for both the CL and Pacific League teams.
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters infielder Kensuke Tanaka was chosen as the PL’s final representative.
Brazell was an overwhelming choice to fill out the CL roster, garnering 20,688 votes.
“What can I say? Hanshin fans are great,” Brazell said. “They really came out and voted.”
Both Brazell and Tanaka would’ve been glaring omissions had they not been voted onto the final rosters.
Brazell is one of the driving forces behind the Tigers’ attack at the plate, leading the team with 30 home runs and 71 RBIs while batting .293. Tanaka, meanwhile, is leading Japanese baseball with 132 hits and a .350 average.
“I wasn’t really thinking about that,” Brazell said of possibly being left off the roster. “It wasn’t something I was going to get down about.”
Despite a penchant for hitting home runs, Brazell set his sights low before the start of Game 1 of the two-game series.
“I just want to get a hit,” he joked. Asked if he had tried to coax Nippon Ham ace Yu Darvish into serving him up something right down the middle, Brazell was all smiles.
“I don’t think he could if he tried,” Brazell said. “Everything in his repertoire is nasty.”
Back for the first time: Kenji Johjima is an NPB All-Star again. Even better, the first game of the All-Star Series is at Fukuoka’s Yahoo Dome, his old stomping ground from 1995-2005 when he was a member of the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, who were renamed the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in 2005. The big difference is Johjima is now a member of the Hanshin Tigers, pitting him against his former Pacific League compatriots in an All-Star Series for the first time.
“It’s been a long time,” said Johjima, who spent four years in the majors with the Seattle Mariners before returning to Japan this season, of being an All-Star.
“But this is my first time to play for the Central League team. It’s a little strange.”
Johjima shook off the jitters long enough to win the home run derby prior to the game, defeating the Yomiuri Giants’ Shinnosuke Abe 4-2 in the final.
He recorded a pinch-hit double in his first plate appearance during the sixth inning of the actual game.
Looking good: The All-Star Series isn’t just about the top players showcasing their skills. Equipment makers are putting their best foot forward as well.
From Tigers outfielder Matt Murton’s white and yellow Hanshin-themed shoes, to the multitude of new gloves — in a variety of colors, including purple and shimmering turquoise — and bats on display, sporting good manufacturers made sure NPB’s stars had the best gear at their disposal.
“They give us a bunch of cool gear for the All-Star Game,” Murton said. “And it gives them a chance to show off their new products.”
Say what: Yomiuri Giants pitcher Shun Tono looked a bit sheepish during an on-field interview before the game. Luckily for him, fellow Giants hurler Tetsuya Utsumi was there to save the day.
Rarely at a loss for words, the jovial Utsumi took over the proceedings and made some bold predictions.
“We’re going to strike out everybody in each inning,” Utsumi joked.
He added: “I’m going to strike out the side in every inning I pitch.”