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Japan gave Yamamoto something to build on against Cuba

by Jason Coskrey

Koji Yamamoto made it through his first two games in charge of the Japan national team with a pair of victories against Cuba, the world’s top-ranked baseball team.

Now comes the hard part.

Yamamoto made a succcessful return to the dugout after seven years away from the game, and now he’ll have to take the lessons learned over the weekend and figure out how to best apply them in March during the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

Most of Japan’s MLB contingent is likely to pass on WBC, so the team Yamamoto guided to wins of 2-0 and 3-1 against Cuba was probably made up of many of the players who will also take the field for him during next year’s WBC.

The Cuban team Japan faced was hardly in midseason form, having just played in Taiwan, not to mention it being November.

Still, with Japan fielding a young team featuring just two players with WBC experience, the importance of two wins over quality opposition can’t be overstated. Especially since the two teams will be grouped together in Pool A during the first round of the WBC next year at Fukuoka Dome.

While neither side put all its cards on the table, the series did offer a few clues as to what to expect out of Yamamoto’s Samurai Japan.

The blueprint against the Cubans was to take care of business on the mound and in the field long enough to create a little bit of offense, and then hopefully tack on some insurance, run by run.

Hayato Sakamoto looked good in the 3-hole and Hisayoshi Chono and Yoshio Itoi also had good showings. That trio has the speed to be dangerous on the basepaths and can sprinkle in a little power, but even so Japan probably won’t have a lineup that can withstand a slugfest.

Yamamoto will probably use his players’ speed to his advantage and attempt to generate runs through a liberal use of the sacrifice bunt and sound baserunning, though Japan’s speed could also lead to Yamamoto deploying a more aggressive approach on the basepaths once the games start to count.

Pitching and defense won the day for Japan in both 2006 and 2009, and will play a greater role in 2013.

To that end, one of the most pressing issues for the new manager is at second base, where he’ll decide whether Yuichi Honda’s bat and his considerable speed are more valuable commodities than Hirokazu Ibata’s experience and superior defense.

Japan’s pitchers acquitted themselves well, with Hirokazu Sawamura and Kan Otake the standouts, but the staff could use a few reinforcements, namely Kenta Maeda or Masahiro Tanaka to bolster the frontline.

Still, Japan’s pitchers allowed a single run without walking a batter over two games. Those are the types of numbers that carried them to the top spot in the previous editions of the tournament.

Japanese players are used to getting in playing shape early in the year, and the WBC’s spring start should again favor the nation’s pitchers.

The danger is that the team may not be built to play from behind, and a deficit of three or more runs could prove costly, putting the onus on Japan’s pitchers and fielders to be on top of their game.

All in all, it was a good debut for Yamamoto’s squad. There’s no substitute for actual game situations and having seen his team play twice has given the manager a wealth of information to pore over and digest over the coming months.

Those months will be easier to handle after having gotten what will be a challenging journey off to a positive start.