Twenty-five players will be leaving their Central and Pacific League teams this week, headed for Athens and the quest for gold at the Summer Olympics.
Their absence will no doubt have an effect on the pennant races in Japan, but to what extent will each of the 12 pro baseball clubs feel the pressure while some of the best hitters and pitchers in the game are playing “For the Flag” in Greece?
Here is a team-by-team look at the situation, with statistics quoted through games of Aug. 1:
The CL-leading Chunichi Dragons are losing their cleanup hitter, right fielder Kosuke Fukudome, and relief ace Hitoki Iwase.
Fukudome is hitting .275 with 21 home runs, and his 76 runs batted in is the second-highest total in the league.
Lefty Iwase leads the Central circuit with 43 appearances, has 15 saves and a 3.18 ERA, alternating as a set-up man and closer.
Chunichi is clinging to a 2 1/2-game lead over the Yomiuri Giants, who are sending to Europe their best pitcher, Koji Uehara, and right fielder Yoshinobu Takahashi.
Uehara is 8-5 and is tops in the CL with a 3.00 ERA. Takahashi has 24 homers, 64 RBIs and is hitting .308.
The Yakult Swallows will go without shortstop Shinya Miyamoto, the Olympic team captain, and southpaw reliever Hirotoshi Ishii.
Miyamoto is a .296 hitter whose loss by the Swallows may be felt more on defense.
Ishii is used mostly as a “one-point” reliever (brought in to pitch to lefties in spot situations), but he does have five saves, a 1-1 record and a 1.54 ERA in 19 games.
The Hanshin Tigers will actually lose three guys, as lefty reliever Jeff Williams will be in Athens to represent his native Australia.
Hanshin will also miss right-handed relief pitcher Yuya Ando and shortstop Atsushi Fujimoto.
Williams is 2-2 with 10 saves and a 2.08 ERA, while Ando is 4-7 with four saves and a 4.50 ERA. Fujimoto, also known more for defense, is a .269 hitter.
Yokohama’s BayStars will give up right-handed starting pitcher Daisuke Miura and catcher Ryoji Aikawa.
Miura is 5-5 with a 3.96 ERA, while Aikawa is batting .249.
Olympic-bound from the Hiroshima Carp will be righty hurler Hiroki Kuroda and infielder-outfielder Takuya Kimura.
Kuroda is 5-6 with a 5.05 ERA, while Kimura, a speedster used off-and-on as a starter, is hitting .244.
The Pacific League-leading Fukuoka Daiei Hawks are parting with their power-hitting catcher and the 2003 PL MVP, Kenji Jojima, and lefty starting pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada.
Triple Crown threat Jojima has a league-leading 33 homers, with 84 RBIs and is batting .348. Wada is 8-4 with a 3.77 ERA.
Two of the country’s best performers are also being sent by the Seibu Lions: Left fielder Kazuhiro Wada and the pitching “Boy Wonder,” righty flamethrower Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Wada is a .324 hitter with 28 homers and 75 RBIs, while Matsuzaka, called the best moundsman in Japan by Giants slugger Tuffy Rhodes, is 8-6 with a 3.37 ERA, nine complete games and four shutouts.
Hokkaido’s Nippon Ham Fighters are sacrificing the left side of their infield, third baseman Michihiro Ogasawara and shortstop Makoto Kaneko.
“Guts” Ogasawara leads both Japanese leagues with a .358 batting average, has 14 homers and 53 RBIs. Kaneko, a superb glove man, is hitting .261.
The Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes are contributing the PL’s leading pitcher, righty Hisashi Iwakuma, and veteran third baseman and slugger Norihiro Nakamura.
Iwakuma is 12-1 and tops both divisions with a 2.34 ERA. Nakamura, having a so-so year, has 17 homers, 56 RBIs and a .278 average.
Two right-handed pitchers are taking leave from the Chiba Lotte Marines: starter Naoyuki Shimizu and bullpen ace Masahide Kobayashi.
Shimizu is 7-9 with a 3.42 ERA, while Kobayashi is 6-5 with 17 saves and a 4.07 ERA in 43 appearances.
Last but not least, Kobe’s Orix BlueWave will cheer for outfielders Yoshitomo Tani and Arihito Muramatsu.
Tani, husband of judoka Ryoko Tani who is also going for the gold in Athens, is batting .323 with 15 homers and 61 RBIs. Muramatsu, a speedster, is hitting .326.
With all these great players gone, it will be interesting to see how each manager makes up for the loss.
Depending on the team, they will have to select a replacement No. 4 batter, pull a rabbit out of a hat and find a fill-in for the starting pitching rotation or plug the bullpen with a substitute closer.
Several players were given a send-off by their home fans prior to their final home game before leaving for Athens.
On July 29, Uehara and Takahashi spoke to the crowd at Tokyo Dome, and Takahashi said, “We will take the spirit of Nagashima-kantoku with us.”
He was referring to former Giants and now Japan national team manager Shigeo Nagashima, who is recovering from a stroke and cannot go to Athens.
The club will probably take Nagashima’s No. 3 jersey and hang it behind its bench during the games.
On Aug. 1, Jojima told the Daiei supporters at Fukuoka Dome he would rejoin the playoff-bound Hawks for the final month of the regular season after surely returning with a gold medal, but Williams and his Aussie mates may have something to say about that.
Meanwhile, Japan’s national high school baseball tournament begins Aug. 7 at Koshien Stadium near Osaka, and the 75th Inter-City baseball competition, featuring some of the best of the country’s company teams, gets under way on Aug. 27 at Tokyo Dome, making for a month of exciting baseball at all levels.
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