Atsunori Inaba was hired to manage Samurai Japan in 2017 with the expectation the first-time skipper would grow into the job over the ensuing years and deliver baseball-mad Japan its first Olympic gold medal in the sport at the Tokyo Games. He won his first international competition in 2017 and his most recent — the Premier12 — in 2019.
All that’s left now is the big one.
Inaba revealed the Samurai Japan squad for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on Wednesday, with Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka among the headliners.
“My main principle since taking this position has been ‘speed and power,'” Inaba said during a news conference at a Tokyo hotel. “That hasn’t changed. I think the players we have reflect that.”
Tanaka isn’t the only high-profile name on the pitching staff. Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano, the reigning Central League MVP, was also named to the squad, as was the Chunichi Dragons’ Yudai Ono, last year’s Sawamura Award winner.
Inaba also tapped Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who pitched for Japan during the Premier12 in 2019 and has become a must-watch talent on the mound for the Orix Buffaloes.
“I feel honored to be selected to be part of the team for this special Olympics that will take place in Tokyo,” said Yamamoto, who flirted with a perfect game in his last start for Orix and has a 2.08 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 86⅔ innings this season.
Tanaka is probably the biggest name on the roster. The former New York Yankees pitcher is on the team because of the one-year postponement of the games due to COVID-19. He would not have been eligible in 2020 as an MLB player.
“I feel happy, but at the same time I feel the responsibility of wearing the Hinomaru again,” Tanaka said in comments released by Samurai Japan. Tanaka previously pitched for the national team at the World Baseball Classic in 2009 and 2013 and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Inaba gave the Japan bullpen an injection of fresh blood with the selections of Hiroshima Carp rookie Ryoji Kuribayashi and Kaima Taira, who is in his third year with the Saitama Seibu Lions. Kuribayashi set a rookie record with 22 straight scoreless appearances to start his career (the previous mark was 13), while Taira is currently on an NPB-record run of 33 straight scoreless appearances since opening day.
“I think I’m more surprised than happy,” Kuribayashi said. “If it was held last year, I would not have been able to be on the team, so I’m just grateful to be chosen.”
Kuribayashi is one of the NPB-high five Hiroshima Carp on the roster, joining second-year pitcher Masato Morishita, catcher Tsubasa Aizawa, infielder Ryosuke Kikuchi and outfielder Seiya Suzuki.
Japan will have to fend off five other teams to win the gold medal at the Summer Games. Israel, Mexico, South Korea and the United States have already qualified with one spot left to be filled. Inaba put those teams in the same category when asked which he viewed as Japan’s rival.
“They will all be trying to win the gold medal,” Inaba said. “So they are all our rivals.”
While the games were delayed by one year due to the coronavirus, Inaba said that did not change Japan’s goal.
“There hasn’t even been a little change,” he said. “I’ll say it again, the goal is to win a gold medal.”
Inaba has power on the offensive side in Tokyo Yakult Swallows infielder Munetaka Murakami, the current NPB home run leader with 20. The squad also features Tetsuto Yamada, another Yakult infielder, who currently has 17, and reigning Pacific League MVP Yuki Yanagita, an outfielder for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, who has 14.
Among other notable names on the offensive side, Inaba also selected veteran Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto and Eagles second baseman Hideto Asamura.
Three players will be making their national team debuts during the Olympics.
Taira is one and the others are Hanshin Tigers pitchers Koyo Aoyagi and Suguru Iwazaki. Morishita, Kuribayashi and Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks outfielder Ryoya Kurihara, last season’s Japan Series MVP, have national team experience at other levels but have been called up to the top team for the first time.
Inaba is only carrying two catchers, Aizawa and Hawks all-star Takuya Kai. He noted, however, that the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ Kensuke Kondo, listed on the roster as an outfielder, could fill in if needed.
“Kurihara can also catch,” Inaba said. “So there’s Kondo and Kurihara.”
The 2020 Olympic baseball tournament is scheduled to begin July 28.
Samurai Japan Olympic roster
- Tomoyuki Sugano
- Koyo Aoyagi
- Suguru Iwazaki
- Masato Morishita
- Yoshinobu Yamamoto
- Masahiro Tanaka
- Yasuaki Yamasaki
- Ryoji Kurihara
- Yudai Ono
- Kota Nakagawa
- Kaima Taira
- Takuya Kai
- Tsubasa Aizawa
- Tetsuto Yamada
- Sosuke Genda
- Hideto Asamura
- Ryosuke Kikuchi
- Hayato Sakamoto
- Munetaka Murakami
- Kensuke Kondo
- Yuki Yanagita
- Ryoya Kurihara
- Masataka Yoshida
- Seiya Suzuki
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