Baseball / Japanese Baseball | HIT AND RUN

Samurai Japan's stars have to come to grips with WBC ball

by Jason Coskrey

Throwing a baseball isn’t rocket science. Unless, apparently, that ball is the official baseball of the World Baseball Classic and is being thrown by a member of Samurai Japan.

For all the preparation the Japanese baseball apparatus has put into March’s 2017 World Baseball Classic — that would be years of prep work for a tournament manager Hiroki Kokubo called a “national concern” — a seemingly innocuous tightly wound mesh of rubber and yarn covered in rawhide could be the proverbial fly in the ointment.

The issue for Japan is the same one that has followed the team since the first WBC: the ball. The balls used for the tournament are slicker than those used in NPB, meaning Japanese players have to change the way they handle it.

That hasn’t always been an easy adjustment in the past, and the issue could rear its head again with so many first-timers on the pitching staff.

Yomiuri Giants pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano got in a little work with the ball on Saturday at the Kyojin’s spring camp facility in Okinawa, throwing 39 pitches to a standing catcher.

“I was trying to get my control down,” he was quoted as saying by Sankei Sports. “I was able to throw as expected.”

Japan’s other pitchers have also been working to familiarize themselves with the ball. The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ Shohei Otani and Naoki Miyanishi started using it during workouts in December, and the Hanshin Tigers’ Shintaro Fujinami started throwing with it as soon as he heard there was a chance he’d be on the WBC roster.

It’s not just the pitchers either.

“It’s a little slippery, but I want to get used to it,” Hiroshima Carp shortstop Kosuke Tanaka told reporters Saturday after learning he would be added to the roster.

Of all the adjustments the Japanese will have to make, getting used to the ball is one that’s important despite how simple a task it would seem to be. But Seibu Lions hurler Kazuhisa Makita, who is on this year’s team, had a tough time adapting to it early on in 2013, and a couple members of the 2009 team had control issues throwing it as well.

The one thing pitchers always have is the ball, and it’s vital they’re able to get comfortable with it and pitch with command. It sounds simple, but you can’t be too careful when the stakes are high and the margin for error might not be very wide.

It’s up to the pitchers (and position players to a lesser extent), and the Japanese coaching staff to stamp out the problem before it arises this year.

It will be interesting to see how the individual pitchers juggle preparing with the WBC ball versus the NPB standard during their respective spring camps, which start Feb. 1, before leaving to join national team practices later in the month

It helps that the team got game experience with the WBC ball during its exhibition series against Mexico and the Netherlands in November. There were a few rumblings about it even then, though pitching coach Hiroshi Gondo didn’t waste any time getting everyone on message.

“Being a professional player means you have no excuses,” Gondo said at the time, after watching his pitchers allow seven runs — six earned — in a loss. “You’ve got a chance to get used to it in the bullpen.”

Pitching is generally one of Japan’s strengths on the international level, and if Otani and company deliver, Japanese fans could have a ball in the stands like they did in 2006 and 2009. Provided, of course, their pitchers are able to come to grips with the actual ball.