• The Associated Press


After failing to win a medal four years ago, Japan’s baseball team is going all out in its quest for Olympic gold this month at Athens.

For the first time, Japan’s national team will be made up entirely of players from the professional ranks, leaving teams from the Central and Pacific Leagues without some of their best players during the crucial pennant drive.

Infielder Michihiro Ogasawara is putting up some Most Valuable Player-like numbers for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters this season and will miss a handful of games when he heads to Athens for the Olympic baseball tournament.

“I’m hoping to bring a gold medal home to Hokkaido,” Ogasawara said following a recent game in Sapporo. “Heading to Athens, I’m pleased with the way I’m swinging the bat.”

Ogasawara, whose nickname is “Guts,” leads the Pacific League in batting average.

With Sydney gold medalist the United States absent this time around, Japan’s biggest obstacle will be an experienced Cuban squad that is determined to reclaim its former title.

The U.S. baseball team failed to qualify for the Games after suffering a shock defeat to Mexico last November.

Few on Japan’s team would be satisfied with anything but gold.

“We’re making a sacrifice by leaving our teams so we want to bring home the best medal,” said Kosuke Fukudome of the Central League-leading Chunichi Dragons, who are bidding for their first pennant since 1999.

In a pre-Olympic tuneup last month, Japan was unable to beat Cuba in a two-game series at Tokyo Dome, losing the second game and tying the first.

The six other countries participating in Athens are Australia, Canada, Greece, the Netherlands, Italy and Taiwan.

Other prominent players joining Ogasawara and Fukudome on Japan’s squad include pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Seibu Lions, catcher Kenji Jojima of the defending Japan Series champion Daiei Hawks and outfielder Yoshinobu Takahashi of the Yomiuri Giants.

Matsuzaka, who played for Japan in Sydney, boasts a 150-kph fastball.

Triple Crown threat Jojima is among the PL leaders in home runs, RBIs and batting average.

Along with Takahashi’s steady bat, the Giants will send ace pitcher Koji Uehara, who leads the Central League in ERA.

One prominent member of Japan’s team who won’t be making the trip to Athens is manager Shigeo Nagashima.

The legendary former player and manager of the Giants suffered a stroke in March that left the right side of his body partially paralyzed.

Nagashima will be replaced by head coach Kiyoshi Nakahata, also a former Yomiuri player.

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