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Utsumi raring to go as World Baseball Classic approaches

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Tetsuya Utsumi is making an appearance at his second World Baseball Classic, but his role will be a lot more important this time.

Although he was on the hill for just three innings, the Yomiuri Giants lefty put up a superb outing on Tuesday night, giving up a hit and no runs and fanning three batters in a 1-0 loss to the Hanshin Tigers at Kyocera Dome in a warmup game for the WBC.

For skipper Koji Yamamoto and his Japan team, Utsumi’s performance brought a sigh of relief, because the two other starting pitchers, Masahiro Tanaka and Kenta Maeda, have yet to show their top form, partly because they’ve struggled with the slippery WBC ball.

“He was terrific today,” Japan manager Koji Yamamoto said after the game. “His command was very good and his fastball was sharp.”

Utsumi hadn’t necessarily been that great since the start of the team’s training camp. He allowed a three-run homer in two innings of pitching as a reliever in a Feb. 17 exhibition game against the Hiroshima Carp in Miyazaki.

Utsumi later said that he thought he could be included in the five players to be cut from the 28-man roster.

But now that anxiety is gone. Utsumi appears to have regained his confidence.

“I was able to pitch how I wanted to,” said Utsumi, who led the Central League in wins in 2011 and 2012 and was the 2012 Japan Series MVP. “I don’t have anything more to add (regarding my mechanics). I just want to enter the tournament as things stand.”

Maybe he’s more excited and motivated than anybody else on the team as the first round at Fukuoka Dome begins this Saturday.

The 30-year-old Utsumi was on the championship-winning Japan team at the last WBC, but ended up pitching in just one game. He started in a second-round game versus South Korea in San Diego, by which time Japan had already qualified for the final round in Los Angeles.

Utsumi hasn’t put that disappointment behind him. He said he wants to chip in for the team much more this time.

Utsumi is expected to take the mound as a starter on March 6 in the WBC first round, when Japan faces its biggest rival in Pool A, Cuba.