FUKUOKA – Manager Hiroki Kokubo’s Samurai Japan squad went through its first practice on Sunday ahead of the upcoming series against a team of visiting major leaguers.
“I wanted to see how well the guys moved today, and everybody looked good,” said Kokubo, who announced that 20-year-old Hanshin Tigers right-hander Shintaro Fujinami would start Monday’s warm-up game at Yafuoku Dome against a squad selected from the rosters of the Pacific League’s Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
The five-game series against a team of major leaguers managed by Boston Red Sox skipper John Farrell will begin on Wednesday at Kyocera Dome and run until Nov. 18 with a final exhibition in Okinawa on Nov. 20. Major League Baseball’s first postseason series here since 2006 is being used as part of Japan’s buildup to the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
The series will employ pitch limits and international tiebreak rules used in the WBC. Every extra inning will begin with runners on first and second.
“For the tie-breaks, we made sure we were 100 percent on the same page with our defensive shifts and signs,” Kokubo said.
Most of Sunday’s fielding practice was done by the pitchers, testing out a mound that had been made harder, in line with MLB norms. Kokubo named the six relievers he expects to use on Monday, saying Tigers lefty Minoru Iwata would be the first out of the chute.
“I was watching him in the bullpen, and his two-seam fastball appeared to move much more than it usually did in the season. If he gets a feel for the major league ball it could be really interesting.”
Kokubo said his leadoff man would be five-tool Hawks center fielder Yuki Yanagita, who hit .317 this season with 15 homers, 72 walks and 33 stolen bases.
“In my mind, he’s the prototypical leadoff man,” Kokubo said. “He hits for extra bases and can steal. If he reaches, you’re not limited to trying to bunt him over. I’ve wanted to try him out there with the national team. Because of that power, he’s a scary leadoff hitter, the kind I hated to play against during my career.”
Kokubo confirmed that Fighters slugger Sho Nakata, who hit five home runs in nine postseason games last month, would anchor his lineup in the cleanup spot.
“What strikes me the most about him is his (heightened) level of concentration,” Kokubo said. “The degree to which he raised his attention level in the second half and produced the kind of results he did, has to be a confidence-builder for him.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing what he can do against major league opponents.”
Although he claimed he felt unworthy of batting cleanup, Nakata said he was soaking up advice from the Japan skipper.
“Personally, I don’t think I’m good enough to bat fourth,” Nakata said. “I just have to man up and confront our opponents.
“I’m so happy that the manager took so much time watching me hit and giving me feedback. He has a knack for communication and I learned a lot.”
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