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Yamamoto stresses importance of pitching, defense ahead of WBC

Kyodo

When Japan manager Koji Yamamoto named his team for the upcoming World Baseball Classic, he said the two-time defending champs would need to win low-scoring games. But if that is going to happen, some of his pitchers are going to have to improve on what they’ve shown so far.

“Runs are going to be at a premium, that means we have to shut down opponents,” the skipper said.

The quality of Japan’s pitching has been the biggest issue in Yamamoto’s Miyazaki camp, where players have had to adjust to the slick WBC ball and mounds rebuilt to tournament standards that are harder than those used in Nippon Professional Baseball.

Two of the big pitchers he is counting on to hold opponents to a minimum of runs are Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka and Hiroshima Carp ace Kenta Maeda, neither of whom looked that good in training.

If those two should fail to come around, however, Yamamoto and his pitching coaches have plenty of options among the 13 pitchers on his staff.

“If Maeda isn’t up to it, then we have the guys who can pick up the slack,” pitching coach Tsuyoshi Yoda said Thursday. “That goes for everyone on the staff, not just Maeda.”

Tanaka is slated to start Saturday’s International friendly against Australia at Kyocera Dome, while Maeda is set to open Sunday’s series finale. The Australia games will also be used to test bullpen options, with Yoda saying the staff wants to decide on three to four late relievers.

“We want to have everyone pitch in pressure situations (against Australia),” Yoda said. “Making your pitches in a real game is a test and we’ll see how players respond to the challenge.”

While Maeda, Tanaka and Seibu Lions ace Hideaki Wakui were causes for concern, the rest of the pitching staff looked very good in camp.

Although the batters failed to score in a practice game last Sunday, they were putting decent swings on the ball in an intrasquad game on Wednesday that preceded the team selection. The skipper said his focus is on catching the ball and for the most part, his lineup selection shows that.

With 13 pitchers on the 28-man roster, Yamamoto has opted for a lot of flexibility in his infield, where veteran shortstops Kazuo Matsui of the Eagles and Takashi Toritani of the Hanshin Tigers have been working out at second and third.

His starting catcher and his team captain is Central League MVP Shinnosuke Abe of the Yomiuri Giants. Backing up Abe are Ryoji Aikawa of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and Ginjiro Sumitani of the Seibu Lions.

Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters first baseman Atsunori Inaba looks like the No. 1 choice at that position, with slugging Fighters outfielder Sho Nakata providing additional cover.

The Softbank Hawks’ Yuichi Honda is the only regular second baseman on the roster, although veteran shortstop Hirokazu Ibata was the Chunichi Dragons’ regular at second base in 2010 and 2011, when the club won back-to-back CL pennants.

The Giants’ Hayato Sakamoto appears to be at the top of Yamamoto’s heap of shortstops, while Nobuhiro Matsuda of the Hawks is now the only member of the team who plays third base for a living.

By cutting two of the three regular center fielders who came to camp, the Giants Hisayoshi Chono looks to play every inning of every game in center, with the Orix Buffaloes’ Yoshio Itoi in right.

Fielding coach Koichi Ogata said that alignment was the consensus among the staff as the best of their options.

“Sho and (the Hawks’ Seiichi) Uchikawa will hold down left,” Ogata said. “While (the Lotte Marines’ Katsuya) Kakunaka can play left and right.”

On a team filled with high-average, line-drive hitters, Nakata is the wild card, a 23-year-old, big-swinger with a .239 career batting average.

Following the two games against Australia, Japan and the other WBC Pool A teams — Cuba, China and Brazil — will play two games apiece against NPB clubs. Japan will FACE Hanshin in Osaka on Feb. 26 and play its final warmup Feb. 28 at Fukuoka Dome against defending Japan Series champion Yomiuri.

Pool A will begin play on March 2, when Japan takes on WBC debutant Brazil.