TAIPEI – Though he didn’t get the nod to start in Sunday’s Premier 12 opener in Sapporo, Kenta Maeda is still believed to be the main guy on Samurai Japan’s pitching corps.
Manager Hiroki Kokubo sent 21-year-old Shohei Otani to the mound for the opening contest against South Korea and assigned Maeda to start Wednesday’s game against Mexico in Taiwan.
It makes sense because of Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Shohei Otani’s familiarity with the mound at Sapporo Dome, his home stadium. What’s more, Hiroshima Carp hurler Maeda is an eight-year veteran who has a better knack for adjusting to any situation as well as anyone.
At Japan’s practice on Tuesday at Tien-Mou Baseball Stadium, the site for Wednesday’s aforementioned game, Maeda maintained his calm, relaxed manner.
“I would like to pitch just like I pitched in the regular season,” said Maeda, who was selected as the 2015 Swamura Award recipient over Otani and the Hanshin Tigers’ Shintaro Fujinami. “And I hope to give our team a chance to win in the end.”
Pitching for the national team can be different because you have All-Star teammates with you on the same team, and Maeda has them in the bullpen.
Even so, the 27-year-old won’t change his pitching pace or anything in particular.
“That won’t change,” Maeda said. “Because it’s an important international game, I won’t think about how many innings at least I’ll have to be on the mound or anything. Because it’s an important game, I won’t overdo things.”
The Japanese players spent Tuesday’s practice getting used to the unfamiliar field and its environment. But for Maeda, adjustments can only be made during a game, so he won’t dwell on it until he actually takes the hill on Wednesday.
“I won’t know how it really feels like until tomorrow,” Maeda said after being asked about the strong winds during practice. “I’ll know when I will actually be on the mound. Or I’ll know things even after the game starts. So I won’t make any preparations from now.”
Maeda also said that he hadn’t checked the Mexican team on film, stating that he’d do some scouting at the team hotel. But whether he knows the opponent or not, it won’t really bother him.
“The pitches I have won’t change, my out-pitches won’t change,” said Maeda, who notched 15 wins and had a 2.09 ERA, both of which were Central League statistical bests, in 2015.
Though their jobs are essentially different, outfielder Shogo Akiyama has the same attitude as Maeda entering Japan’s first Premier 12 game in Taiwan.
The Seibu Lions hit machine said that he isn’t accustomed to the strike zone used by the tournament’s umpires, adding that he would stick to his own batting approach that’s helped spark his rise to stardom this season.
“Basically, I won’t change my approach at the plate,” said Akiyama, who broke the NPB single-season hit record with 216 (previously held by Matt Murton) this season. “Well, when a third strike is called on a pitch that I believe is a ball, I’ve got to be cautious. But because the strike zone may be wider, I won’t widen my own strike zone.”
Meanwhile, some players, especially in the infield, seemed to struggle with the dirt at the stadium. As they took ground balls, players like Nobuhiro Matsuda, Hayato Sakamoto and Kenta Imamiya occasionally mishandled them.
“The balls go faster there and they’ve got to be careful,” infield fielding and baserunning coach Toshihisa Nishi said, referring to the dirt that is on the basepaths. “They don’t have to change how to catch, but when you try to catch squarely, it could hop and you might not get it. So it’s probably better to catch, taking some distance with the ball.”
(A former Yomiuri Giants gold glove-winning infielder, Nishi played for the independent Atlantic League’s Lancaster Barnstormers in 2010.)
Samurai Japan, which beat South Korea 5-0 in the tournament opener on Sunday, will look to post its second victory of the inaugural international tournament against Mexico.
Wednesday night’s game is set to start at 7 (Japan Standard Time).
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