CHIBA – If pitching coach Hiroshi Gondo is right, Samurai Japan won’t have to score a lot of runs to do well in March’s World Baseball Classic.
“If our best players are out there, I think we’ll have to be favorites,” Gondo said Monday, during Japan’s second practice ahead of four exhibition games this week against Mexico and the Netherlands.
“That’s because of our pitching. We may not have the power of some teams, but our best pitchers can beat anyone.”
That certainly seemed to be the case last autumn, when Japanese pitchers dominated the Premier 12. Shohei Otani was on the verge of his second win of the tournament over nemesis South Korea, when manager Hiroki Kokubo and his staff — rather than the relievers — dropped the ball in the ninth inning.
The pitcher he wanted in the game if trouble brewed, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles closer Yuki Matsui, was not ready before South Korea loaded the bases.
South Korea, back in the capable hands of Kim In-sik, who managed the team to the 2006 WBC semifinals and the 2009 final, rallied for four runs to hand Kokubo’s team its only loss of the event.
Should the pitching go south, Gondo said the Japanese will have a tough time of it.
“If we don’t shut people down, there’s no way we can win,” said Gondo, who faced a huge selection headache for the games at Tokyo Dome that start on Thursday.
“We have so many to choose from, and I spent a lot of time on it, and these are in effect just practice games.”
One of his more interesting choices was Hanshin Tigers right-hander Shintaro Fujinami, who is coming off a poor season in which first-year manager Tomoaki Kanemoto was frustrated by the youngster’s lack of control.
On July 8, Kanemoto kept Fujinami in a game where he was ineffective to “teach him a lesson.” He threw a career-high 161 pitches in that game and finished the season with a 7-11 record.
“He has good stuff,” Gondo said of his decision to use Fujinami despite his tumultuous season.
Four months to the day before the WBC kicks off at Tokyo Dome on March 7, Gondo said players will have a tougher time making the team when the final cuts are made.
In 2013, Nippon Professional Baseball was unable to persuade a single Japanese major leaguer to play in the WBC as Japan failed to win for the first time. But things may be different this time.
“When March comes, you’d have to think those major leaguers who come will have preference. Choosing the roster will not be up to me. It will be about who can win a spot on the team, and who is up to the challenge,” Gondo said.