Samurai Japan finished the Premier 12 with a tournament-high 7-1 record. But the sole loss was huge for the national baseball team and cost it a shot at vying for global championship’s inaugural title.
On Thursday, Japan blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning and fell 4-3 to archrival South Korea in the tournament semifinals at Tokyo Dome. The next day, Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo, 44, said that it was the biggest loss of his entire baseball career and he couldn’t sleep well the previous night.
And one day after his team won the third-place game and the 12-team tournament concluded, Kokubo still looked exhausted. Perhaps he had endured another sleepless night.
“I’m stuffed with the regret that we came up short for the world championship, which was the goal we set coming in the tournament,” Kokubo said at a news conference on Sunday morning. “Being the manager that finished third, I don’t know if I have a lot of words to look back on the tournament, though…”
Of course, whether it’s positive or negative, anything can be a valuable lesson moving forward. For Kokubo, the biggest thing he learned during the Premier 12 was about the use of his pitchers, which cost him against South Korean in the semifinals.
Throughout the tournament, Kokubo sent different relievers and closers to the mound depending on the situation. Some of these moved backfired on him.
Kokubo pitched Takahiro Norimoto, usually a starter or the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, from the eighth inning and kept him in the ninth of the semifinal game. That move was criticized by many afterward; they called it a mistake.
The right-hander lost his sharpness and allowed South Korea to load the bases with no outs, and the South Koreans eventually capitalized on the chance to take the lead.
“I thought that we should probably give the pitchers firm roles,” Kokubo said, adding that he apologized to Norimoto for having given him tough duties during the Premier 12.
Looking ahead, Kokubo and his squad will have to turn its frustrations into a driving force. Japan’s goal is to finish on top in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. The team is scheduled to play an exhibition series in March as well.
“We’ll challenge for the world championship,” Kokubo said. “(The Premier 12) was the first serious international competition since I took over as manager. We had to play under extraordinary pressure but our team played well.”
He added that the more time his players spent together in Japan jerseys, the more unified they have become and many of the members that formed the team for this Premier 12 will again assemble for the WBC.
“I felt the team’s mood was the best ever,” Kokubo said of the Premier 12. “I think they will bounce back. They won’t forget the weight of the loss (against South Korea) and I hope they’ll play better next season.”
But unlike the Premier 12 this time, major league players are expected to take the field in the WBC and the quest for the title won’t be easy.
Kokubo said that though he would want Japanese big leaguers to don the national team uniform for the WBC, there are some uncertainties regarding selection of the players because some major league clubs are reluctant to dispatch their own players to the championship.
So he hoped that domestic players would make steady growths and contribute for the team.
“I would like to see that these players (for the Premier 12) will develop further, plus we would also like to see some other, younger players that threaten their spots,” Kokubo said.
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