Baseball

NPB, MLB squads to vie for bragging rights in All-Star series

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Atsunori Inaba already knows he’ll be managing Samurai Japan during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

When it comes to Don Mattingly and Team USA, well, never say never.

Right now, the two managers are preparing to face off in the Japan All-Star Series which begins Friday and will see an MLB All-Star team managed by Mattingly, the current Miami Marlins skipper, take on Inaba’s Samurai Japan team in a six-game series.

“I don’t know what my future holds,” said Mattingly on Thursday, before his team faced the Yomiuri Giants in an exhibition at Tokyo Dome. “But I always love challenges and the challenges of being able to put a team together and actually build toward something would be something that I would welcome, actually.

“I would love to come back to this country. The culture is something that you read about. For me as a kid, reading about different things and seeing the players who have come to the (United) States from Japan, it’s always intrigued me from their work ethic and things like that, so I would love to be able to come back if that presented itself.”

For Japan, the specter of the upcoming Olympics on home soil looms large. The Japanese, who have won two World Baseball Classic titles, won’t be satisfied with anything less than gold and six games against the MLB team is another step in their preparation for the Tokyo Games.

“I’ve picked some players who already have international experience,” Inaba said. “Because we’re also looking two years ahead, I’ve also selected some young players who will have the chance to compete against the major leaguers and improve while playing in this series.

“We have a good mix of players and would like to keep moving forward as a team.”

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher Takayuki Kishi will get the start for Japan in Game 1, while Junior Guerra of the Milwaukee Brewers will take the mound for the MLB club.

Inaba is fielding a squad of mostly youthful pitchers for the series, with veteran righty Kishi an exception.

The team is a little more established in the field with All-Stars such as the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Tetsuto Yamada and the Hiroshima Carp’s Ryosuke Kikuchi. Inaba has also called on rising young slugging stars Hotaka Yamakawa of the Seibu Lions and Yomiuri Giants infielder Kazuma Okamoto.

“I’ve heard about Okamoto,” said Texas Rangers pitcher Chris Martin, who played for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters last season. “I’ve been hearing about him and how he’s compared with Mike Trout and all that. I wanna see it. I want to see it firsthand.

“We play this game to play against the best, and hopefully we’re playing against the best Japanese guys here.”

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is one of the most notable names on an MLB roster that also features the Atlanta Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr., the Washington Nationals’ Juan Soto and Mitch Haniger of the Seattle Mariners.

Inaba was asked which players on each roster stood out to him.

“It’s very difficult to name one player, but everyone is talking about the great cannon arms of Kai on our team and also Molina on the MLB team,” Inaba said, referring to Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks catcher and Japan Series MVP Takuya Kai. “We’re really looking forward to seeing them play.”

The MLB team also has NPB connections in Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kenta Maeda, the former Carp ace. The MLB coaching staff also features Hideki Matsui, one of Japan’s greatest sluggers during his days with the Yomiuri Giants and also former Chiba Lotte Marines and Tokyo Yakult Swallows player Hensley Meulens, now a coach for the San Francisco Giants.

The first three games of the event will take place at Tokyo Dome. The series moves to Hiroshima on Tuesday and wraps up with games on Nov. 14-15 in Nagoya.