For Japan, the preparation has finally come to an end.
The Japanese baseball apparatus has had the 2017 World Baseball Classic circled on its calendar almost from the moment Japan’s run in the 2013 tournament ended two wins shy of a third straight title. Now, the Japanese are back and hoping to bring to fruition a revival that’s been four years in the making.
Manager Hiroki Kokubo and his team put the finishing touches on their preparations for the WBC during a practice session on Monday at Tokyo Dome. Japan will play its opening game against Cuba on Tuesday at the Big Egg.
“The first game is important,” Kokubo said Monday. “We want to start off in good shape. We’ll try to win the first game tomorrow.”
Kokubo will send Chiba Lotte Marines right-hander Ayumu Ishikawa to the mound to start the opener. Fans had been expecting to see Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace Shohei Otani in that role, but the two-way star was ruled out of the WBC last month because of an ankle injury.
Ishikawa threw three innings and allowed one run on three hits and struck out six in Japan’s warmup game against a Taiwanese all-star team on March 1 in Fukuoka.
“He’s a really complete player,” Kokubo said. “I want him to pitch the way he’s capable of tomorrow. He’s got his own style and I want him to pitch the way he usually does in the opening game.”
No one may be more aware of what Ishikawa can do than Cuban slugger Alfredo Despaigne, his former teammate. Despaigne and Ishikawa each joined the Marines in 2014 and spent three seasons together. Despaigne will suit up for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in 2017.
“I heard he’s going to be the pitcher tomorrow,” Despaigne said Monday. “Tomorrow, and of course today, too, everybody will have to study what kind of pitcher he is and what kind of balls he throws. He is a very good pitcher, I know.
“Last year, he showed very good curveballs and sinkers, and he has a quality variety of good pitches. So we must be 100 percent aware that we know the kind of balls that he throws to prepare us for tomorrow.”
Japan enters the 2017 tournament hoping to reclaim the title it won in 2006 and 2009. The team played five warmup games, winning twice, to get ready for this year’s tournament.
“We prepared well,” Yomiuri Giants pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano said. “Now we just have to believe in ourselves as we get started.”
Norichika Aoki is the lone MLB player on the Japan roster. The Japanese had no major leaguers in 2013. Aoki said the team reviewed tape of the Cubans on Monday and will have to be ready for anything.
The 35-year old was only able to play in two of Japan’s warmup games after arriving from the U.S., where he was in spring training with the Astros, last week. Aoki said he’s mostly shaken off jet lag.
“I’m almost OK,” he said.
The Cubans have played two warmup games since arriving in Japan. They faced the Buffaloes on March 3, with the game ending in a 3-3 tie, and lost 5-0 against the Seibu Lions on Sunday.
Noelvis Entenza will be the starter for the Cubans on Tuesday.
“My opinion about the Japanese team is that they have very good batters, and some players, some of them are playing in the major leagues, so what I can do, when I throw balls against these kind of batters, I have to keep them low,” Entenza said.
Frederich Cepeda, a Cuban national team mainstay, will be competing in his fourth WBC, and will do so in the stadium where he played for the Yomiuri Giants in 2014 and 2015.
“Yes, being selected for the fourth time is something that I’m very proud of,” he said. “But this is best, we have the present now, and the future, so at this moment, we have to concentrate for tomorrow’s game. What I can do to help the team is do my best. Of course, particularly there are lots of things that I would like to do, I have lots of ideas, but instead of me, myself, I have to contribute to the team.”