Samurai Japan added the first major league player to its roster for the World Baseball Classic on Wednesday, when Houston Astros outfielder Norichika Aoki signed up for his third WBC.
The move was a boost for manager Hiroki Kokubo’s team and likely a welcome addition for Japanese fans, for whom winning the WBC is a much greater attraction than it is for many in the United States, something that can be said of most of the nations vying for the crown.
So far, Aoki has been the only MLB player to answer Kokubo’s call. Reliever Koji Uehara, who recently signed with the Chicago Cubs, has declined to play, rumors have swirled that the Texas Rangers will try to keep pitcher Yu Darvish out of the fray and Miami Marlins reliever Junichi Tazawa seems to still be persona non grata for national team officials above Kokubo, stemming from his 2008 decision to spurn the NPB Draft and head for the majors.
Additionally, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, during a news conference on Dec. 6, said he thought pitcher Kenta Maeda, coming off his first season in the majors, had declined to play. Roberts later said he wasn’t actually sure and seemed to leave the decision to Maeda.
“Whatever decision he makes, we will support,” Roberts said, according to ESPN. “Obviously, when you’re playing for your country it’s important. But obviously him being ready for the season is important for us as well. But as an organization, whatever the player wants, we’re going to support.”
That leaves three, four depending on Maeda, MLB players on the board.
Ichiro Suzuki, who was famously enthused for the 2006 and 2009 WBCs, might be the biggest prize in terms of team spirit, though he can still play and wouldn’t be a strictly sentimental choice. But a reunion of former Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka is what Japanese fans should really hope to find under their Christmas trees.
Japanese teams usually rise and fall on pitching and defense, and the occasional double-steal attempt, and convincing Iwakuma and Tanaka to play would be huge.
Iwakuma, who, to borrow the famous Kevin Durant meme, was “the real MVP” of the 2009 tournament, and Tanaka have both more than held their own in the majors and would also come with WBC experience — Iwakuma having pitched in 2009, while Tanaka was on both the 2009 and 2013 teams.
Iwakuma has been in the majors for five seasons, all with the Seattle Mariners, and is 63-37 with a 3.39 ERA. Tanaka has dealt with a few injuries during his three years in North America, but is still 39-16 with a 3.19 ERA with the Yankees.
Kokubo traveled to the U.S. during the MLB season to speak with Japan’s major league players, and the next few weeks will show whether or not his entreaties were successful. While there hasn’t been much on that front from Iwakuma, Tanaka was asked about it during a recent trip to Sendai, where he visited Kobo Stadium.
“There’s been no development (on the likelihood of my participation),” said Tanaka, according to Kyodo News. “But of course I have the motivation (to make amends for 2013, when Japan lost in the semifinals).”
In 2009, Iwakuma and Tanaka helped Japan win the WBC and then helped Rakuten reach its first Climax Series. With another WBC looming, the dynamic duo could have the chance to team up once again and add a third notch, and Japan’s third WBC crown, to their belts.