Spring training for the 12 Japanese pro baseball teams got under way in earnest on Friday in Miyazaki and Okinawa prefectures ahead of the season openers on March 29.
The two most highly touted rookies — right-handers Shintaro Fujinami and Shohei Otani — took their first steps out of the blocks with the Hanshin Tigers and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, respectively, in Okinawa’s Ginoza and Kunigami.
Fujinami, who led Osaka Toin High School to consecutive titles at the spring invitational and national championship tournaments, threw a bullpen session in a practice with the top team.
“I got excited since I am finally a pro baseball player,” said Fujinami.
Hordes of fans and media were in attendance to watch the 197-cm rookie take the field in his first pro practice. “I think I have had more attention at Koshien. I wasn’t concerned,” he said.
Otani, who was named as the Fighters’ No. 1 draft pick from Hanamaki Higashi High School despite his desire to pursue a career in the major leagues, started with fielding practice on the farm team.
For the 18-year-old who had stubbornly resisted playing for a Japanese team before having a change of heart, Otani was accommodating as ever on this day.
“I got a sense of what to expect. I had a great time,” said Otani, who ran the bases, took part in a long toss, fielded grounders and also took batting practice. “I’ve thought about it, and I think it’s best that I let my coaches decide the best course for me.”
Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama was on hand to watch Otani throw a live batting practice. Although his control and timing were only half-decent, the skipper offered nothing but praise.
“He has an aura about him. All he has to do is play like the bright and cheerful 18-year-old he is,” the skipper said.
Koji Yamamoto, who will manage Japan in its bid for a third consecutive title at the World Baseball Classic starting March 2, began his scouting for players in Okinawa’s Kumejima. The training camp for the WBC will begin on Feb. 15 in Miyazaki.
Kenta Maeda, who went 14-7 with a Central League-best 1.53 ERA and threw a no-hitter in 2012, threw 21 pitches in a bullpen session.
“I had one bad pitch, so I threw one more. I was throwing at about 50 percent,” said Maeda, who is a top candidate for Japan’s roster.
Newly appointed managers Tsutomu Ito of the Lotte Marines and Hiroshi Moriwaki of the Orix Buffaloes took the reins in Ishigaki and Miyako islands.
Eight of the teams were welcomed to warm weather in Okinawa while the four other teams, including the Japan Series champion Yomiuri Giants, Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, Seibu Lions and Hiroshima Carp, were forced indoors due to rain in Miyazaki.