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Samurai Japan announces six key players for November series against MLB stars

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Chihiro Kaneko says he doesn’t watch many MLB games and doesn’t really know much about the players. He might be in store for an MLB crash course this winter.

The Orix Buffaloes ace was one of six players unveiled as members of the Samurai Japan top team, which is scheduled to face a group of MLB stars, during a news conference at a Tokyo hotel on Thursday afternoon. Also named to the team were Kenta Maeda, the Hiroshima Carp’s star pitcher; Orix outfielder Yoshio Itoi; Hokkaido Nippon Ham outfielder Sho Nakata; Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto; and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles catcher Motohiro Shima. The rest of the squad will be selected after the NPB season.

“These six that we have chosen will be our central players,” Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said.

Samurai Japan will come together to face a combined Fukuoka Softbank Hawks-Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters team in a warmup game on Nov 10 in Fukuoka. Japan will play a five-game set against a group of MLB All-Stars beginning Nov. 12. The series will be spread out among Kyocera Dome, Tokyo Dome and Sapporo Dome. The teams will then play an exhibition in Okinawa on Nov. 20.

There hasn’t been an NPB-MLB All-Star series, also referred to as Nichibei Yakyu, since 2006, when the MLB team won all five games and Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard was named MVP. This year’s series is part of Japan’s plan to strengthen the national team by participating in serious competition. The ultimate goal lies a few years down the road in 2017, when Japan hopes to regain the World Baseball Classic title. Japan won the first two editions, in 2006 and 2009, before falling in the semifinals in 2013.

“We want to create a strong team as we look toward the next WBC,” Itoi said. “I want to do my best as one of the main players.”

The six members named to the team attended the announcement with Kokubo, who took the reins as manager in 2013. Kaneko is the only one among the core group without national team experience.

“It’s the first time for me,” Kaneko said. “I’m a little surprised.”

The right hander has been excellent for the Buffaloes this season and is 9-3 with an NPB-best 1.74 ERA at the All-Star break. Kaneko, who threw nine no-hit innings against the Giants (he was pulled from the scoreless affair after the ninth, and Yomiuri went on win in the 12th) earlier in the season, is also tied with the Hanshin Tigers’ Randy Messenger for the most strikeouts at the break with 146.

Kaneko admitted he doesn’t know what to expect when he suits up for the national team.

“I don’t have any experience, so I really don’t know,” he said when asked if he thought he’d feel any pressure. “Both the game and the environment might be a little different than usual.”

Kaneko also said he wouldn’t know about his condition in November, after what he hopes is a deep run into the postseason with Orix, until he gets there. Asked about what his approach might be, Kaneko replied that he might throw a lot of breaking balls, though he was unsure as to what extent.

“I don’t really have any feeling right now,” he said. “All of them will be foreign batters. It’ll be the first time for me to face something like that. They’ll all have speed and power.”

Kaneko will be a part of this weekend’s All-Star festivities then turn his focus back to the regular season and beyond. After that, he’ll get a crack at a few MLB players.

He wasn’t able to come up with a pitcher he could compare himself to in the majors, but had more luck when asked if there was a hitter who stood out in his mind.

“Well, I don’t have any detailed information, but one name I know is Cabrera, Miguel Cabrera,” Kaneko said, referring to the two-time reigning American League MVP and 2012 Triple Crown winner from the Detroit Tigers. “He’s an amazing batter, though I don’t know how he’s doing this year.”