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Now or never for Dragons hurler Daisuke Matsuzaka

by Jason Coskrey

Daisuke Matsuzaka stepped into the bullpen for the first time during camp on Friday and threw 32 pitches in his still unfamiliar white No. 99 Chunichi Dragons uniform.

“I’m getting better, I was able to throw more than planned,” Matsuzaka was quoted as saying to Nikkan Sports following his session.

Matsuzaka is preparing to embark on his 20th professional season. This will be his first with the Dragons, and in the Central League, after his highly publicized move to Chunichi after spending the past three seasons with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

“I haven’t seen myself wearing it, how is it,” he joked about the uniform with reporters on Thursday, the opening day of spring camp.

As Dice-K attempts to revive a career that’s been on life support since his return from the majors in 2015 — he made just one ichi-gun appearance for the Hawks from 2015-17 — he’s also one of the last men standing from the so-called “Matsuzaka Sedai (Generation).”

The Matsuzaka Generation is a group of players born between April 2, 1980 and April 1, 1981. They were grouped together because of how Japanese schools separate children by grade level and tagged with the “Matsuzaka” moniker, which was not well received by some of them, by the media after Matsuzaka’s legendary performance at Summer Koshien in 1998.

At the time, they were seen as one of the most talented pools of players to ever come along in Japanese baseball. Along with Matsuzaka, Kyuji Fujikawa, Kazuhito Tadano and Tsuyoshi Wada all went on to pitch in the major leagues.

Like Matsuzaka himself, the Matsuzaka Sedai is on its last legs. Of the original 94 (who all left high school in 1998), only 12 have non-ikusei NPB deals at the moment. Of those, Hawks pitcher Wada is probably the most consequential in the grand scheme of things, but Matsuzaka is by far the most interesting.

He’s a highly decorated veteran who’s done it all already, having won a Summer Koshien title, a Japan Series crown and both the World Series and World Baseball Classic during his career.

Matsuzaka also still has considerable fame. His offseason move to the Dragons was followed closely by fans, and he was the center of media attention when he arrived at the Dragons’ camp earlier in the week. It was reported around 100 media members watched Matsuzaka’s bullpen on Friday.

Both Wada and major leaguer Yu Darvish have voiced their support for a Matsuzaka resurgence, and he’s certain to be among the most-watched players as spring camp continues.

Back in action: The Hiroshima Carp’s postseason plans hit a big snag last season, when outfielder Seiya Suzuki injured his right ankle on Aug. 23 and was later ruled out for the season.

Suzuki hit .300 with 26 home runs and 90 RBIs last season in addition to his defense in right field. It was a huge loss for the Carp, who went on to win the CL pennant, but fell to the Yokohama BayStars in the final stage of the Climax Series.

While the outfielder still isn’t quite 100 percent, Carp fans got a good sign on the very first day of camp, when the team lifted his base-running ban, allowing him to really test out his ankle.

“I’m not going to go overboard,” Suzuki told reporters on Friday. “I’m going to take it one step at a time.”

More to come: New Hanshin Tigers slugger Wilin Rosario put on a show in his first outdoor batting practice with the team on the opening day of spring camp. Rosario knocked 14 balls over the fences, including, reportedly, a 140-meter blast.

When asked about his BP performance, Rosario was said to have simply responded it was only at “about 75 percent,”according to Nikkan Sports.

Rosario, who spent five seasons with the Colorado Rockies from 2011-2015, has plenty of power, having hit 70 homers during the past two seasons in the Korea Baseball Organization.

Tigers manager Tomoaki Kanemoto is said to be hoping for 25-30 home runs from Rosario this season. That would be the most by a Tigers player since Mauro Gomez hit 26 in 2014.

Sinking feeling: As if Sawamura Award winner Tomoyuki Sugano didn’t give batters enough problems last season, the Yomiuri Giants ace will be trying out a new, harder sinker during spring camp.

Sugano threw his first bullpen of the spring on Friday and used the pitch during his session with catcher Seiji Kobayashi. Right now, the offering is still in the trial and error stage.

“It’s a good breaking ball,” Kobayashi told reporters. “Now I want to see how batters react to it.”