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Dueling goals drove Samurai Japan

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One way of looking at Samurai Japan’s victory in the MLB-Japan All-Star Series is from the point of view that the Japanese team proved once again it could hold its own against the major leaguers.

This rings true, of course, with Japan reeling off three straight to effectively claim victory, including a Game 3 combined no-hitter, before the MLB team could even get off the mat. The MLB All-Stars won the last two official games of the series, then lost the tour’s exhibition finale, but the series still ended with Japan on top, three games to two.

“Obviously they’re the best in Japan,” said New York Mets slugger Lucas Duda before Game 4. “I really didn’t have an original notion of what they would be, I knew they would be good. I didn’t know how good. I didn’t think they were going to be this good.”

The series’ other intended takeaway, that it was another step on the road to reclaiming the World Baseball Classic title in 2017, is slightly harder to reconcile, even if there was certainly a foundation that can be built upon ahead of the WBC.

A few members of Samurai Japan got a huge boost from the MLB series. Players such as free-swinging Yuki Yanagita, human-highlight-reel second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi and pitcher Takahiro Norimoto emphatically announced their presence to MLB teams and fans, those who bothered to wake up at least, as well as to casual NPB followers. Also impressive were the pitching corps, always the backbone of Japan’s WBC effort, mainly Kenta Maeda, Norimoto, Yuji Nishino and Kazuhisa Makita, while Chihiro Kaneko and Shohei Otani were shaky but didn’t lessen preexisting opinions about them.

The issue for manager Hiroki Kokubo is that some of the players he relied on in key moments might not even be around in 2017.

Kaneko and Maeda, and possibly Otani, might be major leaguers by then and, if the precedent set in 2013 holds, could be outside the reach of the Samurai Japan system. Who knows if the same could hold true for others, like Yoshio Itoi, Nobuhiro Matsuda, Sho Nakata, or whomever.

Looking at it that way, Kokubo may have been better off leaning more on even younger star players, such as Norimoto, and Makita, guys who will almost assuredly be around for the next WBC.

But that was always going to be an unthinkable proposition, from both a competitive and box office standpoint. Samurai Japan wanted to win but also to generate revenue, so the possible MLB targets were needed in starring roles, even if they won’t be around to do the same in 2017. Kokubo was tasked with building a team that could both beat the MLBers and also provide valuable experience for the players who will represent Japan in a few years’ time.

Kokubo knew this and he coaxed an admirable performance out of his team. The series also gave Kokubo, who only ended his playing days in 2012, valuable experience in the dugout.

Now, there isn’t going to be some mass exodus of talent in the near future that’s going to leave Japan bereft of good players when the WBC finally rolls back around again. There will be enough talent to fill out a roster that could probably once again go deep into the tournament, just as the 2013 version did.

What is possible is Japan will head into that event without the cream of the crop, who might be preparing to embark on MLB careers after performing well in a showcase event. Those players, chiefly Kaneko and Maeda, and to a lesser extent Nakata, Itoi and Otani — Yanagita and shortstop Hayato Sakamoto are likely going to still be around — got a lot of playing time ahead of some of the even younger players who could’ve used the experience of playing innings with something still on the line as opposed to when things are already decided.

Japan’s performance against the MLBers created a nice wave of momentum for the future on the backs of a few key pieces who might not be around to help reap the benefits.

While Japan can, and should, hold its head high, as it pertains to the WBC, there might be a little more rebuilding left to be done.