Baseball

Samurai Japan unveils remaining players for MLB series

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The organizers of the 2014 Nichibei Yakyu all-star series announced the remaining players for the Japan national team and 10 more players for the major league squad on Thursday.

For the Japanese team, dubbed Samurai Japan, young star hurlers Shohei Otani (Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters) and Shintaro Fujinami (Hanshin Tigers) were named to the top-flight team for the first time, while rising position players Tetsuto Yamada (Tokyo Yakult Swallows), Yuki Yanagita (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks) and Ryosuke Kikuchi (Hiroshima Carp) were also added to the roster.

Chicago Cubs southpaw Tsuyoshi Wada will also participate, but for the MLB team.

As he’d already insisted, Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo emphasized that Nichibei Yakyu, which starts on Nov. 12, would be part of the team-building process as his club focused on reclaiming the World Baseball Classic title in 2017. Kokubo opted to go with younger, prospective players, instead of veterans who are in their prime.

“I know there are other veteran players that are playing as good as anyone now,” Kokubo said at a Tokyo news conference on Thursday. “But we didn’t just pick players like that, but selected some members who we want to have a chance to gain experience (on the national team).”

Otani will be one of the biggest attractions, not just for Japanese fans, but also for American fans and big league scouts. The 20-year-old rare two-way player posted a 11-4 record with a 2.61 ERA, striking out 179 batters, to help the Fighters make the postseason in his second pro season in 2014. He also hit .274, with 10 homers and 31 RBIs in 87 games as a hitter.

“I will put on the Hinomaru (Japanese flag) jersey,” Otani said in a statement issued by the Fighters. “But I’ve got to develop more, and a lot of players who represent Japan will get together, so I want to learn as much as possible so I’ll deserve to be a Samurai Japan player.”

Asked if Otani would be used as both a pitcher and hitter, Kokubo responded that he’d likely utilize him on the mound.

“As good as he was as a hitter, (Otani) became the centerpiece for Nippon Ham as a pitcher this year,” Kokubo said. “And we thought that he was qualified enough to be on the top team and put him there.”

Kokubo also hinted that he has a plan to use Otani in Game 1 at Kyocera Dome and in the final contest of the series at Sapporo Dome, home of the Fighters.

Meanwhile, Yamada is an attraction on the team for the fielding position corps.

The 22-year-old finished second in the Central League batting average department hitting .324, third in home runs with 29, and fourth in RBIs with 89. The Hyogo Prefecture native also came up with 193 hits, the most by a right-handed Japanese hitter in NPB history.

“A player who hits .280 happens to hit .300, .320,” Kokubo said about Yamada. “But you can’t really hit 29 home runs by chance. He proved he has long-ball ability this year as well. I want him to get the grasp of how much he can do against the major leaguers.”

Other notable names for the Samurai Japan include: Takahiro Norimoto, RHP, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles; Yasuhiro Ogawa, RHP, Swallows; Nobuhiro Matsuda, IF, Hawks; Seiichi Uchikawa, OF, Hawks; and Yoshihiro Maru, OF, Carp.

Other newly added players for the MLB squad beside Wada include: Tampa Bay Rays slugger Evan Longoria; Rays infielder Ben Zobrist, Los Angeles Angels infielder Erick Aybar, Cleveland Indians infielder Carlos Santana and Kansas City Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie.

Kokubo seemingly didn’t expect Wada, who was his former teammate on the Hawks and made his major league debut this season in his third year in the U.S., would return to Japan representing the major leagues.

“I was surprised with Wada,” said Kokubo, a ex-Hawks star slugger. “But he finally showed his presence. He was my former teammate, and although he’s on the opposing team, I’m looking forward to (reunite with him).”

The 33-year-old Wada notched a 4-4 record with a 3.25 ERA for the National League club in ’14.