Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Samurai Japan ready for Asian test as Atsunori Inaba makes managerial debut

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

One day before the inaugural Asia Professional Baseball Championship begins, all three participating nations made their final tuneups with high expectations at the tournament venue, Tokyo Dome, on Wednesday.

The tournament, which features Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, will provide a managerial debut for former star player Atsunori Inaba, who took over at the helm for Samurai Japan in July. During a news conference Wednesday, the 45-year-old predicted his team would capture the championship with its solid defensive game, including its pitching.

“Both teams (South Korea and Taiwan) have potent hitting,” said Inaba, whose Japan team will take on South Korea in the tournament opener at 7 p.m. on Thursday. “We are going to put emphasis on our defensive game and try to score some runs and win. That’s the game we are looking to play.”

Looking ahead to future global tournaments such as the 2019 Premier 12 and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Inaba plans to mix up his team’s mobility and long-ball hitting ability on the offensive side.

Inaba has made it clear Seibu Lions slugger Hotaka Yamakawa, who is on the squad as one of three overage players, would hit in the cleanup spot. The teams are made up of players aged 24 or younger, with the exception of the overage players such as Yamakawa, who is 25.

He also said left-handed hitter Kensuke Kondo of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and Seiji Uebayashi of the Japan Series champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks would bat either in the No. 3 or No. 5 spots.

“We want to use our speed and set the table for our No. 3, 4, 5 hitters,” Inaba said.

Yamakawa, who hit 23 homers in just 78 games this season, said he has no nerves whatsoever and is excited about competing in an international tournament and donning the national team jersey.

“I’m not so much of a stylish player as a cleanup hitter,” Yamakawa said. “But I will try to do my job as the cleanup hitter, I want to play like I always have.”

Kondo, who was hitting above .400 earlier this year but was sidelined with a hernia after playing 57 games, said he would accept hitting in any spot in the lineup but considers “driving runners home” to be his role.

“This is my first tournament for manager Inaba,” Kondo said. “So we would like to make him the championship-winning manager. And hopefully, I can contribute to that.”

Meanwhile, Inaba announced he would send Hiroshima Carp right-hander Kazuki Yabuta to the mound as his Game 1 starter against South Korea.

“Yabuta racked up a lot of wins and he has a strong fastball,” Inaba said. “We know South Korea is good at hitting fastballs, but I want (Yabuta) to display his own pitching.”

Yabuta (15-3, 2.58 ERA in 2017) thinks the players for South Korea and Taiwan have a lot of potential because they are representing their countries, but hopes to “make this tournament a good first step” toward the 2020 Olympic Games.

South Korea skipper Sun Dong-yol will start righty Jang Hyun-sik (9-9, 5.29 ERA for the NC Dinos in 2017). The manager, who pitched for the Chunichi Dragons as their closer in the late 1990s, said the righty can pitch well from the sidestep and thought it would be effective against Japan.

“(Jang) has potential and if he shows it, I think he’s going to bring us a positive result,” Sun said through an interpreter.

South Korea will take on Taiwan on Friday and Japan will face Taiwan on Saturday. The two top teams will advance to Sunday’s championship game.

Taiwan recently hosted the Chiba Lotte Marines in three tune-up exhibitions, losing all three. As the results indicate, Taiwanese skipper Hong I-chung said his team wasn’t able to prepare well but wants his young players to showcase their skills on the field with absolute confidence.

Hong, who also serves as the manager for the CPBL’s Lamigo Monkeys, referred to Wang Po-jung as a key hitter for his own squad. The 24-year-old left-handed hitter became the first-ever CPBL hitter to post an above .400 average in a season (.414) in 2016. This year, Wang achieved the Triple Crown (.407, 31 homers, 101 RBIs), the first such feat in league history.

“He didn’t play well in the exhibitions,” Hong said of Wang. “But we still have high expectations for him. He’s a potent player and it’s not an overstatement to say that how we do in this tournament will depend on his performance.”

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