PEORIA, ARIZONA – Shohei Otani said Tuesday he will not throw for Japan in the upcoming World Baseball Classic due to an ankle injury the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace suffered last autumn, although he may still hit.
“This is a chance that doesn’t often come your way and I wanted to play. I’ve been preparing because I planned to pitch,” said Otani, who set Japan’s speed record of 165 km per hour last season.
“It (the national team) is somewhere you don’t belong unless you’re 100 percent fit. So the decision has been made not to pitch. It is better, but I’m not in position to throw hard off a mound.”
The 22-year-old hurt his right ankle running the bases during last year’s Japan Series and aggravated the injury while playing in the November exhibitions against Mexico and the Netherlands, when he was used exclusively as a hitter — and still stole the show.
Samurai Japan’s first WBC game is March 7 in Tokyo against Cuba, for which Otani was tentatively scheduled to start.
“It’s quite sudden and I haven’t heard any details,” Samurai Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said from Miyazaki Prefecture. “I had heard he is a little behind schedule with his training due to the ankle.”
Tuesday’s decision was ultimately made by Nippon Ham manager Hideki Kuriyama. The Fighters’ training staff said if the ankle got any worse, Otani may have needed surgery.
“He’s not going to make it on the current schedule,” Kuriyama said. “It was getting to a situation where I had to put a stop to it.”
Otani admitted the ankle was not improving as he had hoped.
“It is slightly better, but it just hasn’t picked up enough. Basically, I cannot run properly and it was getting time to make a decision one way or the other,” he said.
“I’ve been paying close attention to my condition and seeing how much I can recover. But the decision is, I just don’t have enough time to be ready by March 7.”
Despite the setback, the two-way superstar could still take part as a hitter. The MVP of Japan’s Pacific League in 2016, Otani also won the league’s Best Nine Awards for both pitcher and designated hitter.
“As it stands now, I don’t know how it’s going to play out,” he said. “There are few players who are ever completely pain free. Right now, I’m trying to improve my condition — even if it is bit by bit.”
Otani was expected to perform in a dual role for Japan for the first time, after appearing previously as either a batter or a pitcher. Prior to starring at the plate in November, Otani had been exclusively used as a pitcher by Kokubo.
Otani had been feeling stiffness in both legs and developed a fever upon arriving in Arizona, but the Fighters are willing to let him hit. Last summer, Otani helped Nippon win the pennant with his bat after a blister took him out of the starting rotation.
“Regarding position player Otani, we’ll leave that up to others,” Fighters General Manager Hiroshi Yoshimura said.
If Otani is healthy enough to bat, however, leaving him on the roster would likely force Kokubo to drop one of his current position players to add a starting pitcher.