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Softball team eyeing 2020 title

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Winning the gold medal for the fifth consecutive time like the Japan softball team did is an unprecedented and remarkable feat for any athlete or team.

But the team feels it is still a long way from achieving its ultimate goal of winning the Olympic title in Tokyo, so the players and staff have no time to rest on their laurels even after their latest accomplishment.

Japan beat Taiwan 7-0 in the final on Friday night in a game ended on the mercy rule.

One of the team’s urgent, major issues is to stabilize its pitching by developing more hurlers that are as dependable as longtime ace Yukiko Ueno.

So while Japan aimed to secure another Asiad gold medal, it also used the once-every-four-years event as an opportunity to test its younger pitchers.

The team had two other young hurlers, Yamato Fujita and Yukari Hamamura, on its roster.

Though she still has room to grow as a pitcher, Fujita has already become an irreplaceable player as an outstanding two-way sensation. In the final, the 27-year-old started as a designated player and relieved Ueno to close out the game.

Ueno, who plays for the Taiyo Yuden team in the Japanese industrial league, was the winningest pitcher while also winning the home run and RBI titles and league MVP during the 2016 season).

Japan coach Reika Utsugi said that she was pleased with the effort by Hamamura, a 23-year-old pitcher who appeared in six games and delivered four wins to Japan (both were team highs).

“Our players had to cope with the pressure to not lose at the Asian Games,” said Utsugi, a former star slugger who has guided the national team since 2011. “And given the circumstances, Hamamura performed well throughout the games.”

By contrast, Ueno was harsh on Hamamura. The 36-year-old Ueno, who serves as a pitcher/pitching coach for club team BicCamera, said, “She needs to develop into a better player so that the team wants to use her more.”

Ueno, who is known for her heroics in helping Japan capture the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, gave up an extra-inning, walk-off hit to the archrival United States in the world championship final in Chiba earlier this month. But seeking revenge on the North Americans, the veteran is still trying to expand her pitching arsenal.

Utsugi hinted that Ueno was attempting a new pitch against Taiwan and also praised her desire to become a better player.

“She isn’t satisfied with where she is. She’s trying to find something new out of herself,” the 55-year-old skipper said of Ueno, who has a sharp fastball, rising fastball and devastating changeup.

“And especially as a pitcher, it’s one against nine (hitters) and you can’t hold them off with just two or three pitches. And she’s pouring a lot of effort into it.”

Ueno urged her teammates, not only the pitchers, on the national squad to not be content with the Asian Games gold medals hanging on their necks.

“The teams used a lot of young players (at the Asian Games), but each player needs to reflect on how they did and capitalize on the experience for the future,” Ueno said.