Houston Astros outfielder Norichika Aoki has been added to the Samurai Japan roster for next spring’s World Baseball Classic, the team announced on Wednesday.
The Japan national team revealed the first 18 players chosen for the roster a day earlier. The 19th man brings something extra to the table as he’s so far the only player with MLB experience on manager Hiroki Kokubo’s squad.
“I’ve played in the United States for five years and have had so many occasions that made me feel Japanese,” Aoki, 34, told reporters from the clubhouse of his former team, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. “I wanted to play for Japan if I had a chance and would absolutely like to contribute to the team.”
Aoki said when Kokubo visited the U.S. during the season, he told the skipper he would join the team if called upon.
Samurai Japan, champions of the first two editions of the WBC, in 2006 and 2009, didn’t have a single MLB player on the roster in 2013 and lost in the semifinals, falling short of a third consecutive title.
“Aoki has championship experience in the WBC and has played in the majors for five years, and I’m sure his participation will be a big help for our team,” Kokubo said in a statement.
Aoki, a three-time Central League batting champion, contributed to Japan’s victories in the 2006 and 2009 Classics. He especially stood out in the latter, hitting .324 with seven RBIs out of the third spot in the lineup. The Miyazaki Prefecture native was selected to the all-tournament team that year along with Japanese pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hisashi Iwakuma.
Aoki said the timing wasn’t right for him to play in 2013, hinting that he still needed to establish himself in the majors.
He said he’s not too worried this time around, even though he will miss part of his first spring training with Houston.
“It’ll be my sixth season in the majors next year, and (the Astros) are going to be my fifth team,” said Aoki, who’s expected to join Samurai Japan sometime after March 1. “I’ve gotten used to moving to other teams, and I know how things work. So I don’t have many worries.”
After playing for the Swallows for eight seasons, Aoki left Japan to join the Milwaukee Brewers in 2012, spending two seasons with the club. He went to the World Series with the Kansas City Royals in 2014, and spent the 2015 season with the San Francisco Giants.
Aoki hit .283 in 118 games for the Seattle Mariners in 2016, and signed with the Astros, who claimed him off waivers, during the offseason.
Aoki said he wants to be a veteran presence for the younger Samurai Japan players the way Ichiro Suzuki and others were for him in the past.
“I know the players (of the majors) for sure, and I can give my teammates a little advice,” Aoki said. “I’ve almost evenly played in the National League and American League, so I can say I know more about the players in the majors.”
Asked how Samurai Japan needs to play to reclaim the WBC championship, Aoki said, “It’s important to play with confidence. Looking back (at past WBCs), I was very aware of playing against the major league players. Yet they are just human beings too, you just can’t get behind mentally.”
With the addition of Aoki, Samurai Japan has nine spots remaining on its roster for the WBC.