MIYAZAKI - Japan manager Koji Yamamoto announced his 28-man roster for the 2013 World Baseball Classic with few surprises on Wednesday as the two-time defending champs wrapped up their fifth day of training.
Cut from the first official roster were last year’s Central and Pacific leagues’ stolen base champs, a slow slugger with an injured hand and a pair of Chunichi Dragons relievers.
“Each and every day, the coaches and I went over the squad,” Yamamoto said. “The guys who have been excluded today can still be called back.”
The tournament, which begins play March 2, puts limits on pitcher workloads, forcing teams to be pitching heavy. Yamamoto’s squad has 13 pitchers, three catchers, seven infielders— including Atsunori Inaba — who can still play the outfield, and five outfielders.
The surprise exclusions were the two fastest members of the squad, Chunichi Dragons center fielder Yohei Oshima and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles center fielder Ryo Hijirisawa. Each man led his league in stolen bases last year. Oshima was third in the CL in batting average and fourth in on-base percentage and won a Golden Glove, but has had trouble this month with detached cartilage in his left elbow. Hijirisawa isn’t as much of an offensive presence but stole 54 bases last year.
“We have fast guys who are regular players. We wanted more run-scoring potential (on the bench),” said Yamamoto, whose team was shut out in a practice game against the Hiroshima Carp on Sunday. “Besides, we aren’t going to have that many opportunities to use pure substitutes.”
Hijirisawa did not bat in that game but went 2-for-2 in Wednesday’s intrasquad game that preceded the roster selection.
Batting coach Kazuyoshi Tatsunami said after the game, however, that Wednesday’s results would not matter much in the final decision.
“It doesn’t matter whether you hit today or didn’t,” he said. “It will be based on what we want to do in terms of team tactics and the things we’ve seen from the first day of camp.”
The other three exclusions were less surprising. Yomiuri Giants third baseman Shuichi Murata suffered a finger injury before camp, although he could be completely fit in time for the WBC.
Dragons reliever Takuya Asao, the CL MVP in 2011, suffered a rotator cuff injury last summer and has been dealing with discomfort this spring. His teammate, right-hander Daisuke Yamai, has had no luck mastering the slick tournament ball and suffered through his second straight poor outing in the intrasquad game on Wednesday.
Asao appeared to be the first casualty of the day when he failed to take the mound in Wednesday’s game.
“We won’t do something that is going to contribute to an injury,” said pitching coach Tsuyoshi Yoda, who said he and head pitching coach Osamu Higashio had talked it over on Tuesday and got Yamamoto’s consent to make the switch.
Yamai took the mound in his teammate’s place and allowed three hits but only one run because the leadoff runner was caught trying to steal and a rocket off the bat of the Softbank Hawks’ Yuichi Honda was caught for the third out.
Hiroshima Carp ace Kenta Maeda made the team despite barely being getting his fastball over 135 kph in Sunday’s game.
“His condition is getting better,” said Yamamoto, who starred for and later managed the Carp. “I have reports that his condition is improving. He’s on the team.”
Seibu Lions ace Hideaki Wakui also looked far from ready on Wednesday, but like Maeda probably benefitted from the plan to keep 13 of the 15 pitchers invited to the training camp.
With the exception of Wakui and Yamai, the pitching looked quite good on Wednesday. Although every pitcher had a few balls that got away and badly missed their targets, there was a lot of good execution.
Hirokazu Sawamura of the Giants gave up a leadoff double in the second inning but threw his two-seam fastball to perfection to escape trouble with a pair of groundouts. Kenji Otonari of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks threw two perfect innings.
“I was able to keep my fastball down. That’s my bread and butter,” Otonari said. “I had some pitches that lacked late movement and some I lost control of, but I didn’t give up anything. I was able to do things I’m capable of. One pitch got away from me, but otherwise I think I made a case for myself.”
Yamamoto said the exact roles on the team were still up for grabs as most of the position players were not yet in their best condition and the Dragons duo of Asao and Yamai had been the strongest original candidates to fill the closer’s job.
“In today’s (selection) discussion a lot of candidates were thrown out there for the closer’s role,” Yamamoto said. “The pitching coaches will do most of the thinking on that.”
The most obvious candidates for the big job in the bullpen would be the Hawks’ current closer, Masahiko Morifuku, Wakui, who closed last year for the Lions, or submariner Kazuhisa Makita, who sealed wins for Seibu in 2011 and won the PL Rookie of the Year Award.
The team has one day left of practice in Miyazaki before traveling to Osaka on Friday and playing exhibition games against Australia at Kyocera Dome on Saturday and Sunday.
Japan is grouped in the first round with Cuba, China and Brazil in Pool A in Fukuoka, while Australia is playing its first-round WBC games in Pool B in Taiwan.
Pitchers: Hideaki Wakui (Seibu Lions), Atsushi Nomi (Hanshin Tigers), Hirokazu Sawamura (Yomiuri Giants), Takeru Imamura (Hiroshima Carp), Masahiro Tanaka (Rakuten Eagles), Toshiya Sugiuchi (Yomiuri Giants), Kenta Maeda (Hiroshima Carp), Masahiko Morifuku (Softbank Hawks), Tetsuya Utsumi (Yomiuri Giants), Kenji Otonari (Softbank Hawks), Kazuhisa Makita (Seibu Lions), Tetsuya Yamaguchi (Yomiuri Giants), Tadashi Settsu (Softbank Hawks)
Catchers: Ryoji Aikawa (Yakult Swallows), Shinnosuke Abe (Yomiuri Giants), Ginjiro Sumitani (Seibu Lions)
Infielders: Takashi Toritani (Hanshin Tigers), Hirokazu Ibata (Chunichi Dragons), Nobuhiro Matsuda (Softbank Hawks), Hayato Sakamoto (Yomiuri Giants), Kazuo Matsui (Rakuten Eagles), Atsunori Inaba (Nippon Ham Fighters), Yuichi Honda (Softbank Hawks)
Outfielders: Yoshio Itoi (Orix Buffaloes), Sho Nakata (Nippon Ham Fighters), Seiichi Uchikawa (Softbank Hawks), Hisayoshi Chono (Yomiuri Giants), Katsuya Kakunaka (Lotte Marines)