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Kokubo turns to youthful talent to carry Samurai Japan for Taiwan exhibition series

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Recently introduced Japan baseball national team manager Hiroki Kokubo doesn’t appear to impose victories on his players right away.

Instead, he will ask them to understand the significance of representing their country and being a part of the Samurai Japan squad.

Kokubo, who revealed his squad on Monday for the three exhibition games against Taiwan from Nov. 8 to 10 in Taipei, said before Tuesday’s Game 3 of the Japan Series at Tokyo Dome that he intended to select younger players who have not put on the Japan jersey on the international stage in the past.

“Basically, we chose ones that put up great performances this year,” Kokubo, 42, said. “And at the same time, we tried to pick ones (players) that have not had experience representing the country previously.”

As he noted during his introductory news conference, Kokubo is focused on long-term plans and his ultimatel goal is to recapture the championship at the 2017 World Baseball Classic. So he selected fresh, rising — well, you may say some of them are undeveloped — players, ages 26 or younger, including four amateur players.

“After having battles this season, I know they have fatigue,” said the former star of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and Yomiuri Giants. “But I want them to have the responsibility to represent Japan, and want them to join this team with the mind-set that they want to be on the team at the WBC in 3½ years, too.”

Meanwhile, the squad features a couple of “veterans” who have previously worn the national team outfit. Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters outfielder Sho Nakata and Seibu Lions catcher Ginjiro Sumitani played for the Koji Yamamoto-led Samurai Japan, which was eliminated in the semifinal round, back in March.

Kokubo, a former slugger, has high expectations for Nakata, the cleanup hitter for the Fighters. Of course, he plans to put him in 4-hole against Taiwan.

“Hit cleanup,” Kokubo responded, when asked what he would expect out of Nakata for his team. “He had a lot of difficult times in the 2013 WBC, including with his batting mechanics. But I think that he took advantage of that experience for the pennant race.

“He’s definitely one of our members that are in charge of the core roles.”

This season, Nakata, 24, was second in the Pacific League with 28 homers and a .308 batting average in 108 games.

“Among our members that we’ve selected this time, he’s the most suited man for the cleanup spot because he can hit long balls,” Kokubo said of Nakata. “I want the cleanup hitter to be a guy who can score some runs with his long balls, rather than one that sets the tables for others.”

Kokubo added that he wanted to determine who can excel on the bigger stage when wearing the Hinomaru jersey.

He was also asked about his starting pitchers for the Taiwan games and who the captain would be. But Kokubo would not reveal them, saying that the team’s coaching staff has a bit more time to think about those decisions.

“I need to consult with (pitching) coach (Yoshitaka) Katori, though,” Kokubo said, referring to the pitching rotation. “And we have some plans. But we still have days until the final deadline for the registration, and we should be able to announce then.”