SAPPORO – One day before the inaugural Premier 12 debuts, Japan national baseball team manager Hiroki Kokubo and South Korea skipper Kim In-sik addressed the media at a Sapporo hotel on Saturday evening.
“As it’s finally beginning, we’re thrilled,” Kokubo said. “It’s the first tournament, but Japan needs to win so this tournament will develop going forward.”
Kim said that it’s a little unfortunate that two of the best teams in the tournament, which feature the world’s 12 best-ranked nations, would have to square off against each other in the very first contest But he added that his team would certainly give its best effort in Sunday’s game at Sapporo Dome.
The game will start at 7 p.m.
Despite Shohei Otani’s shakiness in Thursday’s exhibition against Puerto Rico in Fukuoka, Kokubo didn’t lose his faith in the 21-year-old fireballer, who tied Hiroshima’s Kenta Maeda and Chiba Lotte’s Hideaki Wakui for the NPB lead in victories (15) this past season. The skipper stuck with his original plan to use the right-hander in the tournament’s opening game.
Meanwhile, Kim announced that Kim Kwang-hyun will take the mound against Japan.
The 27-year-old southpaw has had exceptional performances against the Asian rival in the past, including at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The SK Wyverns pitcher won 16 games and earned the MVP award during the ’08 Korean Baseball Organization season.
As much as his team would have to watch out for the powerful South Korean hitters, including their cleanup man Park Byeong-ho, who’s had 50 or homers in the last two KBO seasons (53 in 2015), Kokubo said that Kim is a tough hurler to face and score runs against.
“As far as we’ve seen him on video, Kim Kwang-hyung’s got a great fastball and slider,” Kokubo said. “I’ve always thought that he’d be successful no matter which league he plays in, and I believe that he’s going to give us some tough times.”
Likewise, Kim In-sik, who led the national team in the 2006 and 2009 WBC, recognizes the quality of the Japanese pitchers.
“As I’ve led the team to face Japan so many times in the past, one thing that I know about them is that they are really smart at playing baseball,” the 68-year-old said. “Especially their pitchers are really elaborate. Otani and their other pitchers are all good and I consider them a good rival.”
One big concern for Samurai Japan is the condition of slugger Takeya Nakamura, who bruised the back of his right hand when he was hit by a pitch in Friday’s exhibition against Puerto Rico. The Seibu Lions’ six-time home run king reportedly left the team to undergo a medical checkup in Tokyo on Saturday. At the news conference, Kokubo didn’t clarify whether Nakamura would play on Sunday.
“Regarding our offensive lineup, because of the injury of Nakamura, we are probably going to have to go flexibly,” Kokubo said.
The Premier 12 is run by the World Baseball Softball Confederation, which was established to get the two sports back into the Olympics. Japan enters the tournament as the No. 1-ranked team while South Korea stands at No. 8.
Except for the Japan-South Korea game, the first and preliminary round, in which the 12 teams are divided into two groups, will be played at four stadiums in Taiwan. The top four teams in each group will advance to the quarterfinals. Tokyo Dome will host the semifinals and gold medal game.
Unlike the World Baseball Classic, there are no players that are on 40-man rosters of major league clubs in the Premier 12. So countries like the United States, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have rosters primarily filled with their minor leaguers.
After the South Korean game, Japan, which is in Group B, will fly to Taiwan and resume its first round against Mexico at Tien-Mou Stadium on Wednesday. Samurai Japan will also face the United States, Dominican Republic and Venezuela, in that order, in the first round.
Group A features Cuba, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Canada, Puerto Rico and Italy.
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