Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Samurai Japan, MLB stars not ready to ease up in exhibition


After Samurai Japan beat an MLB team 3-2 in the Japan-MLB All-Star Series, Thursday’s exhibition in Okinawa gives the big leaguers a chance to ostensibly go home with a .500 record against the host nation.

Japan clinched the series by winning the first three games, including a combined no-hitter by four pitchers in Game 3. Yet the major leaguers bounced back to win Games 4 and 5.

“Japan pitchers did well, leading us to victories in the first three games, but as the Series went along, the major league hitters’ condition has improved and the speed of their swings has gotten better,” Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said Wednesday at a press conference in Naha.

“Because of that, we were unable to finish as strongly as we would have liked. But that is something we can learn from. While tomorrow’s game will be an exhibition, it’s also a game between professionals, and just as we did over the last five games, we will be playing to win.”

The competition between a national team on Japan’s side and a haphazard assembly of big league talent on the other involved contrasting objectives. Some Samurai Japan players who have announced their desire to go abroad, such as Hiroshima Carp ace Kenta Maeda, could use the series to gauge their skills against big league competition.

“I am grateful of the opportunity to face MLB’s premier hitters,” said Maeda, who won Game 1 for Samurai Japan. “I tried all my pitches and that gave me some insight into the things I need to do to improve.”

On a team level, Japan’s eye is on reclaiming the World Baseball Classic championship it won in 2006 and 2009, but failed to capture in 2013, while MLB’s goal was not so clear cut.

“Our goal here was to build toward having the best possible team for the 2017 WBC,” Kokubo said. “To that end we started by looking at younger players, but I also picked some of the best domestic talent available, and those guys were able to maintain their form like it was midseason. That’s why we won the series.”

While giving credit to Japan for getting the job done early in the series, MLB skipper John Farrell pointed out some of the difficulties he faced in bringing a team here that Kokubo didn’t.

“We get this great opportunity to see a team of excellent players that is powerful, talented, with extremely good pitching,” Farrell said. “They are more talented now. Are there players on this team who could compete in the major leagues? We definitely think there are more who are going to come over to the States and be good major league players.

“(But) we go through a very different system to assemble the team that is here. Individual major league teams can deny permission, and we experienced that in putting this roster together. There are a number of circumstances that don’t give us access to every top player at the major league level.”

Seattle Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, who has pitched for Japan in the WBC, returned to compete alongside his big league colleagues, and expressed pleasure in the quality of his countrymen’s efforts.

“I was able to see very high-level play by each player on the Japan squad,” Iwakuma said. “The starting pitchers, many of them have what it takes to be successful in the major leagues. Among the position players, I faced (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks outfielder Yuki) Yanagita for the first time in my career, and I was very impressed. Even though he is a leadoff hitter, he takes ferocious swings, with good bat speed. He can hit for power, he has speed.”

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