When Samurai Japan manager Atsunori Inaba looks at the team’s new red uniforms, he’s filled with passion and enthusiasm.
For Inaba, the uniform is a visual representation of the fire and intensity he wants his players to show. He can already see them taking the field in a couple of months in those striking red tops in pursuit of the prize the nation’s baseball establishment has been diligently working toward for nearly five years.
Red may have been the color of the day on Wednesday, when Japan revealed the uniforms it would wear during the Tokyo Olympics, but gold is the only color that really matters this summer.
With the countdown to the Summer Games now below 100 days, the spotlight on one of the world’s premier baseball powers will only grow brighter by the day.
“We’ve finally reached 100 days to go,” Inaba said Wednesday. “I really want to prepare well for it. We are going to try to win the gold medal.”
Inaba said that despite the ongoing situation with COVID-19, he was happy the NPB season was able to start on time. Japanese pro baseball began March 26, and each team has already played at least 16 games. Having real games taking place is allowing Inaba and his coaching staff to gain valuable information as they try to determine which players give Japan its best chance to claim an elusive Olympic gold medal.
“All the players have made one circle (around their respective league) and we’ve gone through some of the season to a degree,” Inaba said. “As they continue to go through the season, we’ll be watching their condition. There are a few injured players, so we’re going to have to keep watching carefully.”
One of those injured players is Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks ace Kodai Senga, who twisted his left ankle during a game on April 6 and was later diagnosed with ligament damage. The Olympic baseball tournament begins July 28, and the prevailing thought is it may be tough for Senga to fully make it back in time.
Japan may also be without Seibu Lions infielder Shuta Tonosaki, who played for Inaba during the Premier12 in 2019. Tonosaki underwent surgery for a fractured fibula earlier this month and isn’t expected back until mid-to-late July.
Even without those players, Japan figures to have a formidable roster featuring NPB stars like Hiroshima Carp slugger Seiya Suzuki, who was the Premier12 MVP, and possibly Yomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano. Inaba saw another potential key piece of the puzzle on Wednesday night at Jingu Stadium, as he was in attendance to see Tokyo Yakult Swallows infielder Tetsuto Yamada homer in consecutive at-bats.
Suzuki and Yamada were part of the team that won the Premier12 in 2019 — Japan’s first senior-level international title since the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Japan has never won gold on the Olympic baseball diamond, with a silver and two bronze medals from five appearances. The pressure will be on in Tokyo, as it could be a while before the country gets another opportunity to complete its Olympic medal collection. Baseball is not among the sports on the program for the 2024 Games in Paris.
With these Olympics on home soil and with no MLB players scheduled to take part, Japan will likely be heavily favored — which will only add to the pressure.
Inaba’s strategy for victory so far has been “speed and power.” While Japan has historically been known for its ever-growing cadre of world class pitchers, Inaba wants to put together a squad that can also provide some support, whether it’s through hitting the ball hard or manufacturing runs.
He took his speed and power mantra for a test drive at the Premier12 and was brought to tears as Japan celebrated on the field at Tokyo Dome after winning the final. Inaba and Samurai Japan want to create a similar scene at Yokohama Stadium in a few months.
“When it comes to our team, we are going to look for players with whom we can employ our strategy of speed and power,” he said.
As revealed on Wednesday, the team is going to look slightly different during the games. While Japan’s regular home and road uniforms didn’t get a major overhaul, the all-red secondary visitors’ uniform will be the first time the national baseball team has worn red.
Inaba said he has never worn red during his career as either an amateur or pro, but likes the way the new uniforms came out.
“It’s a passionate red,” he said. “It made me want to fight with my own passion. I want to wear this uniform and aim for the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, which is our biggest goal.”
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