Baseball

Japan fills out team for World Baseball Classic

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Samurai Japan mostly filled out its roster for the 2017 World Baseball Classic on Tuesday, adding eight players, but no major leaguers, to the 19 names released in December.

The new players bring the roster up to 27, leaving one spot to be filled.

“My tension has been rising and my head is full of ideas of how I should use the players we announced today,” Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said. “In the past we’ve had to think over and over again about how to maximize our lineup, especially as it pertains to the pitchers.

“We are going to have to play as many as eight games in 10 days, and we have had discussions about how to achieve balance with our starters and relievers. As for the position players, most of them we’ve used previously, so we didn’t have much trouble with the selections, aside from a few instances.”

Six of the additions were pitchers. Perhaps the most notable was Hanshin Tigers starter Shintaro Fujinami, who had a down year in 2016 but is usually mentioned as one of Japan’s top young talents. Fujinami was 7-11 with a 3.25 ERA in 2016 for the Tigers, striking out 176 in 169 innings.

Other new additions were Ayumu Ishikawa (Chiba Lotte Marines), left-handed Toshiya Okada (Chunichi Dragons), Yoshihisa Hirano (Orix Buffaloes), Kodai Senga (Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks) and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles lefty Yuki Matsui.

Yomiuri Giants catcher Seiji Kobayashi was also added, as was Dragons outfielder Ryosuke Hirata.

Currently, Japan’s lone MLB player will be Houston Astros outfielder Norichika Aoki.

“He told early us early on he’d play for us no matter the situation,” Kokubo said. “We would like him to impart what he has learned from his experience to his teammates.”

Japan had multiple MLB stars on its roster in 2006 and 2009 (Aoki was part of both teams), when it won the first two WBC titles. The 2013 team, which lost to Puerto Rico in the semifinals, had no major league players.

Japan figures to have a solid team even without MLB stars. The pitching staff is headlined by Shohei Otani of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano. Ishikawa and the Eagles’ Takahiro Norimoto will be in the mix as starters, while Hirano and Matsui could get closing duties.

“We chose 13 pitchers who can pitch more innings and pitch as relievers, so now we’re just hoping we don’t have any injuries,” Kokubo said. “We believe our defense, including pitching, will be our strength.”

Kokubo also noted he was focusing on Otani, a threat both on the mound and at the plate, as a pitcher.

“We’re going to talk to manager (Hideki) Kuriyama and Nippon Ham regarding the possibility of letting him play as a hitter,” Kokubo said. “He might be either a pinch hitter or a designated hitter. But we want him to focus on his main role as a starting pitcher first, and pitch as many innings as possible and hold down his opponents.”

The Japanese team has two All-Stars to choose from at second base in the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Tetsuto Yamada, one of Japan’s top hitters, and defensive dynamo Ryosuke Kikuchi of the Hiroshima Carp. The team experimented with both in the lineup by trying out Yamada at third base during practices and for an exhibition game in November.

“Yamada will exclusively play at second base,” Kokubo said. “Kikuchi could play at shortstop and third base in emergency situations.

Kokubo also has a decision to make at the cleanup spot, where the Fighters’ Sho Nakata and the Yokohama BayStars’ Yoshitomo Tsutsugo are prime candidates.

“Nakata showed he plays well in big moments during the Premier 12,” Kokubo said. “He especially came through with runners on base. Tsutsugo has clearly developed over the past few years and it’ll be important that he can hit to the opposite field on the international stage.”

Japan is in Pool A with Australia, China and Cuba for the first round of the WBC, which will take place at Tokyo Dome. The Japanese open against Cuba on March 7. The team will face Australia on March 8, and China on March 10.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.

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