Baseball / Japanese Baseball | NPB NOTEBOOK

Handful of players from 'Matsuzaka Generation' still holding on

by Jason Coskrey

Daisuke Matsuzaka returned home on Wednesday, solidifying a deal to spend his 20th season in pro baseball with the Saitama Seibu Lions, the club he spent Year 1 with back in 1999.

While the reunion angle is nice and all, Matsuzaka’s signing is also a reminder there are still a few members of the famed “Matsuzaka Generation” still kicking around Japanese pro ball.

The moniker was given to the group of players born between April 2, 1980 and April 1, 1981, which put them in or around the same high school class as Matsuzaka, who shot to superstardom during the 1998 Summer Koshien. They all entered NPB between 1998 and the early 2000s.

This was thought to be a particulaly deep class of talent and Matsuzaka’s overwhelming fame saw his name attached to it. Many actually did end up having solid careers in pro baseball. Pitchers Matsuzaka, Kyuji Fujikawa and Tsuyoshi Wada are among those to play in MLB.

Now, about 20 years later, the Matsuzaka Generation’s numbers are dwindling, even as Matsuzaka himself soldiers on. This year saw catcher Kazunari Sanematsu, infielder Eishin Soyogi and pitchers Shohei Tateyama and Katsuhiro Nagakawa retire.

Currently, there are just five players likely to be on an NPB roster next season: pitchers Fujikawa, Yuya Kubo, Matsuzaka and Tsuyoshi Wada and infielder Naoto Watanabe. All are grizzled veterans at this point, with some doing well and others just hanging on.

Fujikawa, for instance, was a valuable part of a Hanshin Tigers team that reached the Climax Series this year. Just when you might’ve thought age was catching up, the 39-year-old made 56 appearances and converted 16 saves, 23 holds and finished with a 1.77 ERA in 56 innings. He earned a save against the Yokohama BayStars in Game 1 of the Central League Climax Series then worked the eighth and ninth innings in the rain to help put away the series in Game 3.

Wada, meanwhile, closed out a nondescript year (he was 4-4 with a 3.90 ERA in 12 appearances) by finishing off the Yomiuri Giants with a throwback performance in the clinching game of the Japan Series.

As for the generation’s namesake, it was a rough year.

After a decent showing in 2018, Matsuzaka only made it to the mound twice for the Chunichi Dragons’ top team this year, allowing 10 runs in 5⅓ innings. He’s only made 14 starts since returning to NPB in 2016.

Now back where he started, Matsuzka will be looking to conjure up enough magic to provide one more flourish for himself and the so-called Matsuzaka generation.

“I’m really happy to return to the Saitama Seibu Lions for the first time in 14 years,” Matsuzaka said last week. “I got my start as a baseball player and grew in Tokorozawa and I’m really excited about being able to play baseball in front of all the Lions fans again.”

Just fine, thanks

Anyone hoping to see Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto play in MLB probably had those hopes dashed on Friday. After signing his deal with the Kyojin for 2020, Sakamoto pretty much shot down a move to MLB, saying he wants to remain with the Giants until the end of his career.

“I don’t have confidence and it’s probably impossible, so I want to do my best in Japan,” he was quoted as saying by Nikkan Sports during a news conference on Friday.

Sakamoto, who will turn 31 on Dec. 14, has been on the radar of MLB scouts for several years and has drawn plenty of interest. In addition to winning three Golden Gloves at shortstop, Sakamoto is a .293 career hitter with 223 home runs and 800 RBIs. He was also this season’s Central League MVP.

Winter wonder

The NPB season may be over, but there are still Japanese players on the diamond. As has been the case in past yeasr, NPB has sent two teams of young players to compete — as NPB Red and NPB White — in the Asia Winter Baseball League in Taiwan.

One of the standouts so far is infielder Richard Sunagawa, a developmental player from the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. Through 11 games, Sunagawa was leading the league with three home runs and was hitting .356 with 16 RBIs, another league-best. Given the Hawks’ recent success with developmental players, Sunagawa, a 20-year-old, could be a player for fans to keep an eye on in the future.

Talent would seem to run in Sunagawa’s family. A 2018 report in the Ryukyu Shimpo noted that his older brother Joey O’Brien was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the sixth round of that year’s MLB draft.

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