With Olympic berths hanging in the balance, the final six teams in the WBSC Premier12 are preparing to return to field for the tournament’s Super Round, which begins in Japan on Monday.
Japan, the world’s top-ranked team, enters the second round with a perfect record but isn’t taking anything for granted. The Japanese are focused on winning the title for the first time and gaining momentum for next year’s Tokyo Olympics. Samurai Japan will open its Super Round campaign against Australia at Zozo Marine Stadium at 7 p.m. on Monday.
“It was huge that we won all three of our games in the Taiwan round and it’s put us closer (to the championship). And our players have built confidence and have gotten in better condition,” said manager Atsunori Inaba.
Japan lost to eventual winner South Korea in the semifinals of the inaugural edition of the tournament four years ago and settled for bronze.
“It’ll be the first game in the Super Round,” Inaba said. “We’ll be playing in an open-air stadium and may have some nerves in the first game of the round. But we’re going into the game thinking of this as a fresh start.”
Japan, a two-time World Baseball Classic champion, defeated Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Taiwan in the first round.
Prior to Japan-Australia, Taiwan and Mexico will begin the Super Round at noon at Zozo Marine Stadium.
The tournament format this year has been largely modified from the first edition.
The top two teams from each of the three Opening Round groups in Taiwan, South Korea and Mexico have advanced to the Super Round. In the Super Round, the teams will play opponents who were not in their group during the first round.
The three group winners — Japan, Mexico and South Korea — will start with 1-0 records based on wins over the second place teams in their groups. Which means Taiwan, Australia and the U.S., who all lost to the group winners in the first round, will start out 0-1.
The top two teams in the Super Round will advance to Sunday night’s gold-medal game at Tokyo Dome.
For Monday night’s game, Inaba has designated right-hander Shun Yamaguchi, of the 2019 Central League champion Yomiuri Giants, as his starting pitcher against Australia. The Aussies will send right-hander Dushan Ruzic to the mound as their starter.
“It’s a good team” said Australia manager David Nilsson, a former Milwaukee Brewer who also played for the Chunichi Dragons, when asked which Japanese players his team would have to worry about. “Tomorrow, we’ll play Team Japan, so with that, there’s no player on their roster we’re putting a lot of attention to, we’re putting equal attention to whoever we’ll play. They have a lot of depth, in starting pitching with a strong bullpen. Their hitters are very effective 1-9. We’re approaching them as a unit, one team.”
After facing Australia, Samurai Japan will take on the United States, Mexico and reigning champion South Korea, respectively, all at the Big Egg.
The Premier12 serves as a qualifying event for next summer’s Tokyo Olympics, in which the sport will make its return for the first time since the 2008 Beijing Games. The highest-placed nations from the Americas and Asia/Oceana (excluding host Japan) will punch their tickets to the 2020 Games.
Defending champion South Korea will square off against the United States, in a rematch of the 2015 final, at 7 p.m. at Tokyo Dome. But manager Kim Kyung-moon insisted that his squad would continue to play with a one-game-at-a-game mind-set and not dwell on trying to repeat.
“We won all our games back home (in the pool stage), but we try to not think of the result as indicative of what we are,” he said. “We think all the teams in the Super Round have the ability to win it all. But the condition of our team is very good and we want to go back to the country with a good result.
“Our goal is to win the championship. But we are not thinking too much about repeating. We just want to do the best we can in every game we play and we believe that will lead to a positive result.”
All six teams practiced in Chiba on Sunday to tune up for the Super Round.
Team USA skipper, and former New York Yankees infielder, Scott Brosius said that “there’s no question” the team “is very motivated to play well” in Japan, referring to its quest to earn a spot in the Tokyo Olympics.
“Our ultimate goal obviously is to qualify for the Olympics,” said Brosius, who won three World Series championships with the Yankees and was named the 1998 World Series MVP. “But in order to do that, we know that we have to beat some very good teams. So we have to turn our full attention to each and every game, treat every game as the most important game.”