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MLB names four stars for series against Samurai Japan

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

As the Nichibei Yakyu extravaganza returns for the first time in eight years, Major League Baseball looks set to bring a serious squad to Japan come November.

Three-time National League MVP Albert Pujols, currently of the Los Angeles Angels, and six-time All-Star Robinson Cano of the Seattle Mariners were among the four players who were revealed as scheduled to play in the 2014 Nichibei Yakyu on Wednesday.

The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Cuban sensation outfielder Yasiel Puig and Baltimore Orioles slugger Adam Jones were the other two.

Major League Baseball Japan managing director Jim Small would not hint at any other candidates to join the MLB squad, including Japanese-born players, but said those details would be announced later next month.

“We think that’s a pretty good start. We have number of other players of that caliber who are interested in coming to Japan,” Small said at a Tokyo news conference. “We’ll announce those names a little bit later. But I think it’s indicative of MLB players’ desire to come and play against the best in the world. And we feel that Japan’s play in the WBC has created a competition that I think MLB players want to be part of.

“And they look at this certainly as an exhibition, but as a chance to show that MLB players are the best players in the world. So they are looking forward to that in November.”

Ron Washington, who guided the Texas Rangers to the World Series two years in a row from 2010, will manage the MLB team for the five-game series, which will be played for the first time since 2006.

Actually, the 2014 edition of Nichibei Yakyu will have some new features to distinguish it from past editions. The biggest change is that the national team, dubbed Samurai Japan, will represent Japan, and will dress in the national team uniform.

Samurai Japan considers Nichibei Yakyu as a part of its strengthening process for the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Japan skipper Hiroki Kokubo said that he hadn’t been notified about the four players but was thrilled to take on an MLB team with some of the league’s best players.

“These are players that many Japanese baseball fans will recognize,” Kokubo, a former Fukuoka Softbank Hawks star who took the helm of Samurai Japan last year, said of the four MLBers: “We are trying to develop our team with the 2017 WBC in mind, but this is an opponent that is worth playing against for us.”

For the first time ever in Nichibei Yakyu, a pitch count limit will be applied. A pitcher can only throw up to 80 pitches. When a pitcher throws more than 50 pitches, he has to be given at least four days’ rest until his next outing, or when one pitches over 30 pitches on consecutive days, he has to take a day off.

A tiebreaker will also be applied when a game is deadlocked through nine innings. The teams will play with runners on first and second with no outs from the 10th inning. Nichibei Yakyu will be played with the Rawlings-made WBC ball.

Small insisted that Nichibei Yakyu has dramatically changed from past editions because of the inception of the World Baseball Classic, where Japan has earned a pair of championships and Team USA has shown lackluster performances in the last three tournaments.

“Before the WBC, I think that the players, both from our side and NPB side, at Nichibei Yakyu played for pride, their own pride to show they are better than the other team,” Small said. “But in the WBC, particularly Japan’s success in the WBC has created more anticipation, both by our players, and by our fans in the United States and Japan, to see which league is the best league.

“And now in the WBC, they are showing which country is the best country, and we view Nichibei Yakyu as a competition of who’s the best league.”

Small added that MLB has “spoken to every major league player” as to whether they would like to participate in the Japan tour after their season. He said that he received positive impressions from some of the players he’s spoken with.

Kokubo revealed six players who would be in Samurai Japan uniforms for Nichibei Yakyu last month, but like Small, he wouldn’t comment on any others that could be placed on his roster.

Kokubo, however, said that because of the pitch count rule, he would reconsider his player selection a little bit.

“I was originally thinking to have as many (starting pitchers) as the number of the games,” Kokubo said. “But we may have to increase it by a few more.”