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Young hurlers Norimoto, Sugano aiming for All-Star Series participation

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Takahiro Norimoto’s favorite NPB All-Star memory is of watching Norichika Aoki propel the Central League to a 10-8 win over the Pacific League with a ninth-inning two-run home run in Game 1 of the 2009 All-Star Series.

For Tomoyuki Sugano, it’s when Kyuji Fujikawa rared back and challenged Alex Cabrera with four consecutive fastballs, after informing the Seibu Lions slugger what was coming, in 2006.

The two second-year pitchers recounted these memories at the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame on Thursday afternoon as they helped NPB officially announce this year’s All-Star Series, which will be played July 18 at Seibu Dome and July 19 at Koshien Stadium.

“Players come from all the different teams and each person brings something to the table,” Norimoto said.

The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher and reigning PL Rookie of the Year is hoping to be named to his first All-Star team in a few weeks time. Norimoto is 6-3 with a 2.91 ERA in nine starts this season. He tied with the Hanshin Tigers’ Randy Messenger for the most shutouts in Japan (three) and has struck out a PL-best 63 batters while playing in the considerable shadow left by the departure of ace Masahiro Tanaka to the major leagues.

Sugano was an All-Star as a rookie for the Yomiuri Giants last season, and he’s hoping to go back for the second straight year. The right-hander is on track to make it happen with a 1.71 ERA that is the lowest in Japan and a 7-2 record that ties him with the Yokohama BayStars’ Shoichi Ino for the most wins in the Central League.

“I was really nervous,” Sugano said of his All-Star experience last season. “There were all these veteran players on the bench, and I was a rookie.”

Sugano said he’s hoping for a matchup against Hokkaido Nippon Ham’s two-way star Shohei Otani if both make their respective All-Star squads.

“Last year Otani-kun was the leadoff man, and he got a double off me,” Sugano said, referring to Game 2 of the 2013 series at Jingu Stadium, and adding that this year he wanted to get a better result.

“He’s a good player and he’s been putting up good numbers,” Norimoto added about Otani.

Norimoto said he’d look forward to facing Brad Eldred, the Hiroshima Carp outfielder who is hitting .335 and leading Japan with 17 home runs and 53 RBIs, also joking that he’d have to ask Sugano, against whom Eldred is 0-for-6 with three strikeouts this season, for some advice.

“If he pitches like he did yesterday, he shouldn’t have to be afraid,” Sugano said, referring to the three-hit shutout Norimoto tossed against the Giants on Wednesday.

The All-Star Series begins with Game 1 at Seibu with a scheduled first-pitch time of 6:20 p.m. Game 2 will be held at Koshien Stadium with a start time of 6:30 p.m.

As in the past few seasons, there will also be a charity auction where signed uniforms and other products can be bought, with proceeds going to support the ongoing relief efforts from the Great East Japan Earthquake.