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New year brings new hopes for some in Japanese baseball

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Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched his final game of 2016 in the maroon and yellow of the Gigantes de Carolina in the Puerto Rican winter league. Matsuzaka threw seven innings in that Dec. 29 start, giving up three hits and allowing his only run in the seventh inning.

Overall, he made four appearances during his time in Puerto Rico, going 0-3 with a 2.70 ERA in 20 innings. Matsuzaka struck out 11 and walked 11. It was a better ending than the one he had with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, when he allowed five runs — two earned — in his only inning of the NPB season on Oct. 2.

Matsuzaka went to Puerto Rico hoping to get himself ready to vie for playing time next year, when he’ll try to make an impact for the first time since returning to Japan from MLB in 2015.

Next season is a fresh start for Matsuzaka, allowing Dice-K, who at one time was such a force that an entire group of players are said to be part of the Matsuzaka-sedai (Matsuzaka generation), the chance to write a more fitting final stanza to a decorated career.

He won’t be the only one wiping the slate clean in 2017, a year in which the theme of renewal figures to be a recurring one during the spring and summer.

It’ll start even before the NPB season. In March, Samurai Japan, which overhauled the structure of its various national teams after the 2013 World Baseball Classic, will see the fruits of that labor, for better or worse, during the 2017 WBC.

Once the actual domestic season begins, fans will notice several players wearing new uniform numbers. There are a host of reasons players change numbers, but one popular catalyst is the idea of a new number representing a fresh start.

One of the more notable changes will be Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Yuki Saito switching from No. 18 to No. 1.

Eighteen is the traditional ace’s number in Japan, though Saito, who was drafted to great fanfare, hasn’t lived up to that billing — not to mention the team’s most recent aces, Yu Darvish and Shohei Otani, were both given No. 11.

Saito wore No. 1 most notably as a high schooler in 2006, when the “Handkerchief Prince” led Waseda Jitsugyo on a scintillating run to the Summer Koshien title, becoming one of the most popular athletes in Japan in the process. He went on to have a good career at Waseda University, but is just 14-20 with a 4.20 ERA in six pro seasons.

So going back to No. 1 is, as manager Hideki Kuriyama is hoping, perhaps a way for Saito to recapture the feeling of his glory days.

While some players change numbers, others take Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles infielder Toshiaki Imae’s approach. Imae made just 89 appearances in his first year in Sendai, after 14 seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines, hitting .281 with three home runs. He’d played just 91 games and hit .287 with one homer for Lotte the year before.

In seeking his own fresh start, Imae isn’t switching numbers, but changing the actual kanji characters in his registered given name for the 2017 season. New year, new Toshiaki.

The Chunichi Dragons are getting into the spirit as well. The team’s slogan for the 2017 season is “Back to the beginning — start from zero.” The Dragons have fallen all the way down the mountain after winning four pennants and a Japan Series title from 2004-2011. After a string of B-Class finishes, the Dragons are ready to start from scratch in 2017, with an eye on a return to the ranks of the elite.

There are similar stories all around Japanese baseball.

The dawning of a new year always brings new hopes and dreams, and also an easy line of demarcation, where the failures of the past can be left and used as a springboard into a better future.

Out with the old and in with the new is a common refrain this time of year, and it could also be a recurring theme across the NPB landscape this spring.