Masato Morishita may not have much experience in top-level international baseball, but he’s already made an impression.

Morishita’s first start for Samurai Japan’s top team started out a little shaky on Saturday, but by the end, the 23-year-old was pitching like a player who has a bright future ahead of him.

At least that’s the impression the Mexican team he spent most of the afternoon holding down came away with.

“I think he had a great repertoire today,” Mexico manager Benjamin Gil said. “I think he has great command. He can throw to the outer half, inner half, curveballs, changeups, throwing the ball up, keeping it down. I think he can do it all, up, down, inside, outside. I think he has a great future ahead of him.”

Morishita is just one of the young pitchers manager Atsunori Inaba has called up to the national team for the Tokyo Games.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto, 22, got the start in Japan’s opening game on Wednesday and 25-year-old Ryoji Kuribayashi also pitched. On Saturday, Morishita was relieved by 23-year old Hiromi Ito, who gave the ball to 21-year-old Kaima Taira, who passed the baton to Kuribayashi.

Among that group, Yamamoto has pitched in four NPB seasons, Taira is in his third year, Morishita is a second-year player and Ito and Kuribayashi are rookies.

Experience, or lack thereof in this case, however, was not the motivating factor for Inaba when he was putting his team together.

“Taira and Kuribayshi are really young and this was their first time in a top team game,” Inaba said. “These are really young players, but I think they are going to be great pro baseball players in the future.

“I chose all the players with winning the Olympic Games in mind.”

Japan's starting pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto hurls the ball during the fourth inning of the team's game against the Dominican Republic on Wednesday. | AFP-JIJI
Japan’s starting pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto hurls the ball during the fourth inning of the team’s game against the Dominican Republic on Wednesday. | AFP-JIJI

The gold medal was what Inaba was hired to win in 2017. While Japan’s younger pitchers may not have much experience — with the exception of Yamamoto, who was on Japan’s Premier12 team in 2019 — they’ve shown enough promise that Inaba is willing to put part of the nation’s Olympic destiny in their hands.

Morishita was the Central League rookie of the year in 2020 and has a 2.29 ERA in 90⅓ innings this season for the Hiroshima Carp. He’s pitched in an NPB All-Star Game and can now add the Olympics to his resume.

“He was probably pretty nervous this morning to get the start today for the top team,” Inaba said. “I think he was able to throw the kinds of pitches he usually does and that was good. He was able to keep the scoring down until the fifth inning.”

Morishita allowed two runs over five innings and finished with three strikeouts.

“I think that being such a young pitcher he was really bold,” said Mexican infielder Efren Navarro, who played with the Hanshin Tigers in 2018 and 2019. “He was throwing great pitches, he was in the 92-93 (mph) range and I think he pitched a great game.”

Ito followed with two scoreless innings, Taira allowed a two-run home run in his one inning and Kuribayashi threw a scoreless frame.

It was a good experience for Japan’s young arms, who may be called upon to carry the load again at some point during the Games.

“I have international experience from high school and college,” Morishita said. “I think those were really good experiences. This was my first time playing with the top team, so the level of nervousness was different and the level of the hitters was higher. So I feel like a new player going against those hitters today.”

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