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Japan struggling to deliver on mound

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

On the eve of Japan’s World Baseball Classic opener against Brazil, Masahiro Tanaka said that one stellar outing would change people’s perception.

But it didn’t work out that way. The impression he gave on Saturday night was not what he wanted.

After a couple of inconsistent outings in warmup games, Tanaka was again shaky on the mound as a starting pitcher for the two-time reigning tournament champion Japan. The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles right-hander seemingly had no idea how to get batters out on the day, lasting only two innings after giving up four hits and a run (unearned) on 23 pitches.

“Well, at least we won, so I should hold my head up . . .” Tanaka said after Japan’s 5-3 victory over Brazil at Fukuoka Dome.

The coaches of Team Japan weren’t so optimistic, however.

“We’re going to have to have meetings of four to five hours every day,” Japan pitching coach Tsuyoshi Yoda said with a bitter smile.

It appeared that the coaches would have to discuss what to do with the struggling Tanaka, who was thought to be the ace hurler entering training camp in mid-February.

Skipper Koji Yamamoto gave reporters a noncommittal answer about whether he’d grant another starting chance to the 24-year-old pitcher.

“On what we’ll do with him . . . we’re going to think about it,” Yamamoto said.

Yoda, who was on the WBC-winning team as a pitching coach in 2009, said that Tanaka had no problems in the bullpen before he took the mound on Saturday, and that he’d been getting better as he gradually adjusted to the slippery WBC ball.

That’s why Yoda wants some clues as to what the team should do with Tanaka for the reminder of the tournament, in which Japan is looking for its third consecutive title.

“The problem is, we’re not sure if we should make him pitch more (in practice) or if we should rest him a bit,” Yoda said. “And once you get into the tournament, you don’t really have time to experiment.

“If this was the regular season, we would have time to do that. But the reality is, we don’t. So it is difficult.”

Not only Tanaka, but Toshiya Sugiuchi’s outing was a bit of a concern for Japan as well. The Yomiuri Giants southpaw relieved Tanaka in the Brazil game.

Sugiuchi, who’s the only player on the team who has appeared in all the three WBCs, wasn’t as sharp as he had been in his previous outings since the warmup games began.

Yamamoto hinted that the team would go with Atsushi Nomi, who worked a perfect eighth inning against Brazil, as a possible replacement for Tanaka as a starter.

“Nomi’s delivery was very good,” Yamamoto said. “The reason why we limited him to just an inning was because we could use him as a starter.”

Yoda said: “Since our training camp, (Nomi)’s been able to control the ball very well. We want to have him as a reliever, but we’re not going to exclude the possibility of using him as a starter.”

Both Yoda and head pitching coach Osamu Higashio suggested that they would reshuffle their starting rotation for the second round at Tokyo Dome, depending on the condition of Tanaka and Kenta Maeda.