• Kyodo

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Japan skipper Hiroki Kokubo said Thursday the experience of having managed the national side for 3½ years will be his life’s treasure, even though the team failed to reclaim the World Baseball Classic title.

“Of course it’s disappointing that we could not achieve our biggest goal of becoming No. 1 in the world at the WBC,” Kokubo said shortly after returning to Japan following his team’s 2-1 semifinal loss to the United States in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

But he emphasized the blame should not be placed on his men, saying, “That I was surrounded by and blessed with wonderful players and was able to fight together with them is a treasure in my life.”

Kokubo, who announced his intention to step down as skipper of Samurai Japan after its defeat to the United States, said he shook hands with each player after arriving at Narita airport, where about 200 people gathered to welcome them home.

“My feelings of the times I spent with them started welling up. I thanked them anew for their sense of mission to wear the Samurai Japan uniform and lead the world of baseball,” Kokubo told a news conference at a Tokyo hotel.

He said the job of national team manager “was not easy,” noting the biggest difficulty involved was having to make the decision to use some players more than others, even though they were all among the best at their respective ballclubs.

Japan won the first two WBC championships in 2006 and 2009, but has lost in the semifinals of the last two. In its first trip to the final, the United States won the title with an 8-0 victory over Puerto Rico on Wednesday.

Kokubo said he will take on commentating jobs for the time being and think about his future, while expressing hope the Japan players will start the new Nippon Professional Baseball season from March 31 with a new mindset.

“The players did a good job and I am to be fully blamed for losing. These players who worked so hard will be starting the season soon so I hope people will look forward to seeing them play after having grown through the WBC,” Kokubo said.

“I hope the players will not be affected too much by the WBC but enter the season with refreshed minds.”

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, who hit .320 with a team-high eight RBIs in seven games as Japan’s cleanup hitter, recalled playing for the 45-year-old manager with affection.

“He was a great manager, someone who made me want to do my best for him,” the Yokohama BayStars slugger said. “It was an honor to be able to fight as a representative of Japan.”

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