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Japanese baseball is back on Friday, which makes this a great time to single out a few players in the Pacific League who fans should keep an eye on this season.

Ryoya Kurihara, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, catcher

One one hand, 2020 was a breakout year for Kurihara.

He’s listed as a catcher but spent most of his time last season in the outfield and also played first base a lot more than he caught.

After playing only 46 games on the top team from 2017 to 2019, Kurihara played in 118 during the 2020 regular season. He made the most of the chance by hitting 17 home runs — giving him plenty of chances to perform his home run celebration, which is an homage to San Diego Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. He homered off Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano in the Japan Series and was eventually named MVP of SoftBank’s four-game sweep.

Coming into 2021, Kurihara’s challenge will be to maintain his ability to hit home runs while also working to do better than last year’s .243 batting average. He’s probably going to have to hit better if he wants to hold off Seiji Uebayashi in right field or take Nobuhiro Matsuda’s place at third base. He didn’t really do it during the spring, going just 8-for-43.

Kurihara turns 25 on July 4 and 2020 was by far the most playing time he’s gotten as a professional. His versatility as a fielder gives manager Kimiyasu Kudo a wealth of options when putting together his lineup, so any improvement he makes could be extremely valuable for the defending PL champs.

Kurihara made a good first impression in 2020 and it’s entirely possible he can start smoothing out some of the rougher edges and make the Hawks that much more potent.

Roki Sasaki, Chiba Lotte Marines, pitcher

The Marines made shirts and towels to commemorate Sasaki’s first outing as a pro — a one-inning relief appearance in a spring training game.

The excitement around him has been at a fevered pitch since he was throwing upper-90s (mph) fastballs in high school and hasn’t dissipated in the least.

Sasaki makes the same mistakes other inexperienced young pitchers do, but his stuff is electric. The ball just looks different leaving his hands when compared to his teammates.

Sasaki was the most talked-about player in the 2019 draft and has already been dubbed the “monster” of the Reiwa Era.

After not pitching on the top team in 2020, he has a spring training inning and practice game start under his belt. In the latter, his fastball topped out at 154 kph.

The Marines are hoping to get him into a real game at some point and rest assured NPB fans will be watching.

Kona Takahashi, Seibu Lions, pitcher

Takahashi had a stretch of nine starts from Sept. 1 to Oct. 27 where he had five starts of at least seven innings with no more than two earned runs allowed — he didn’t allow any runs in four of them and took a no-hitter into the ninth in one of them. He also had a seven-inning outing with three runs allowed and threw 6⅓ scoreless innings in another game. The remaining two games in that stretch weren’t very good.

The Lions will take that over the course of a season if Takahashi can give it to them.

Takahashi has shown flashes of what the Lions saw when they drafted him with their first pick back in 2014. Now the team needs to see it more often and with more consistency.

Takahashi, who has a 4.12 ERA in 465 1/3 career innings, is going into 2021 riding a little momentum. He mostly pitched well late last season and ended up with a 3.74 ERA in 120⅓ innings.

Takahashi has talent, but it’s time for him to really give Lions fans something to get excited about. The club is in desperate need of improvement on the mound and Takahashi pitching well would be a good start.

Masahiro Tanaka, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, pitcher

Tanaka’s first start of the season will be among the most anticipated of the year with fans eager to see how he fares in his return to Japan after seven seasons with the New York Yankees.

Tanaka isn’t returning as a veteran looking to wrap things up. He can still play and easily could’ve kept going in the majors. So there is every reason to expect Tanaka, now 32, to pitch at a high level again for Rakuten.

He was 78-46 with a 3.74 ERA and 17.5 WAR (per Baseball Reference) during his time away from Japan. He struck out 991 and posted a 1.13 WHIP for the Yankees over 1,054⅓ innings.

Neither Tanaka nor the Pacific League is the same as when he left in 2013.

Tanaka is older but also wiser and has a wealth of experience and a few new tricks. Pa League batters, meanwhile, still had to contend with players like Shohei Ohtani and Kohei Arihara, both major leaguers now, as well as Kodai Senga and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, to name a few, while Tanaka was gone. The quality of the league’s best hitters may have grown and it’s unlikely Tanaka, even if he’s very good, waltzes in and picks up exactly where he left off in 2013.

He’s also going to have to re-adjust to the mound, the ball, the strike zone and a lot of hitters who just want to put the ball in play.

Tanaka will have a chance to make some personal history early, as his next NPB victory will be his 100th. His return also restarts the clock on his record regular-season win streak, which currently stands at 28 games and famously includes a 24-0 run in 2013.

Taishi Ota, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, outfielder

Ota tends to slip through the cracks on occasion as Sho Nakata, Haruki Nishikawa and Kensuke Kondo soak up most of the attention among the Fighters’ position players.

Ota, though, is a really good player deserving of his share of platitudes.

He has a .275 average and 64 home runs for Nippon Ham since joining the team in a four-player trade before the 2017 season. Ota is also a more than quality presence in right field, which only adds to his value.

Ota hit .275 in 115 games last season, finishing behind Nakata with 14 homers and driving in 68 runs. He also won his first Golden Glove for his play in the outfield.

The right-handed hitting Ota hit lefties and righties pretty equally last year (.272 and .276 respectively) and per Data Stadium hit well against balls 150 kph and above.

While never living up to lofty expectations with the Yomiuri Giants, he’s settled into a nice groove for Nippon Ham and become a more versatile and all-around player.

Stefen Romero, Orix Buffaloes, outfielder

Not only is Stefen Romero a good player, he’s a good player who already knows Japan. Romero already has four NPB seasons under his belt, three with the Buffaloes and last season with the Eagles.

Orix needs him to contribute early and often and won’t have to worry about getting him adjusted to Japan. Once he gets to Japan, that is, as he is among the foreign players still waiting to get into the country because of the current travel restrictions in place due to COVID-19.

Whenever he arrives, he should add a solid bat to an offense that produced a league-worst 442 runs in 2020. Romero hit .272, with 24 home runs and posted an .893 on-base plus slugging percentage in 103 games for the Eagles last season.

Now back with the Buffaloes, and with home run performance partner Ryoichi Adachi, Romero is in position to be part of the solution for an ailing franchise.

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