Tuned in Tokyo
BY ED ODEVEN
TOKYO – Sadaharu Oh, professional baseball’s all-time home-run king (868 round-trippers) and manager of Japan’s 2006 World Baseball Classic title-winning team, chatted with Shohei Ohtani on the field before the hosts’ Pool B game against South Korea on March 10.
On the same night, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Tokyo Dome.Both moments provided snapshots of the prestige and national significance placed on the WBC in The Land of the Rising Sun.
Six years after it was last staged, the Japan national team, aka Samurai Japan, is the catalyst for a national festival, a must-see event ― every game that Ohtani and Co. play in.
Starting on March 9, World No. 1 Japan crushed its foes on four consecutive nights in Pool B, defeating China (8-1), South Korea (13-4), the Czech Republic (10-2) and Australia (7-1) in succession.
That set the stage for a win-or-go-home quarterfinal clash against surprising Italy, led by manager Mike Piazza, on March 16.
Japan didn’t disappoint its home crowd, trouncing Italy 9-3.
And so here we are, with Japan vs. Mexico and Cuba vs. Team USA in the WBC semifinals.
It’s a shock to no one that Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama’s team is in Miami making preparations for Monday night’s showdown with Mexico.
By all accounts, representing Samurai Japan in uniform at the WBC is a stated desire by most of the nation’s premier ballplayers.
From 2021 AL MVP Ohtani to 3,000-career strikeout pitcher Yu Darvish to Boston Red Sox newcomer Masataka Yoshida (a career .327 hitter with just 300 total strikeouts in seven Nippon Professional Baseball seasons before joining Boston in the offseason) to a host of rising stars, playing in the WBC is an honor.
American major leaguers have often shied away from playing in the WBC due to teams’ reluctance to grant them time to be away during spring training, with fears of injuries ever-present, too.
Japanese players, on the other hand, are, for the most part, more willing to make the commitment. Exhibit A: Ichiro Suzuki in 2006 and ’09.
Current case in point: Darvish is 37 and he recognizes this is likely the last time he’ll compete for Team Japan.
“Well, this is my home country, I was born and grew up (here), and this might be the last opportunity for me to pitch in my home country,” Darvish said after pitching three innings against South Korea. He allowed three runs (two earned) and three hits. Japan trailed 3-0 after the visitors’ half of the third, then rallied for four runs in the bottom half of the inning, making Darvish a winner and hammering South Korea.
The past and the present have collided this spring in Japan.
MIAMI, FLORIDA - MARCH 18: Shohei Ohtani(R) and Munetaka Murakami(L) of Samurai Japan smile during the Japan Workout at Miami International University on March 18, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Masterpress - Samurai Japan/SAMURAI JAPAN via Getty Images)
Kuriyama was Ohtani’s first manager when he played for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters from 2013-17, a skipper who encouraged him to compete as both a pitcher and an outfielder (he appeared in 51 games in right field as a rookie) and eventually used him frequently as a designated hitter on the days when he wasn’t pitching.
Kuriyama managed the Fighters from 2012-21, then took over as skipper of the national team.
By penciling in Ohtani’s name as the starting pitcher for Japan’s WBC opener against China, Kuriyama was signaling to everyone that this is Shohei’s team and he’s the top star.
For Ohtani, the WBC experience reuniting with Kuriyama is indeed special.
He acknowledged as much after Japan’s quarterfinal showdown with Italy, a game in which he worked 4⅔ innings and scattered five hits, gave up two runs, struck out one and hit two batters to pick up the win.
“This is such a special moment for me, even to me, representing Team Japan, and he managed me as a national team manager,” Ohtani told reporters after the game, his second WBC start.
“My first impression with Kuriyama-san is from my high school (days) ― he was a reporter and I had an interview and we had a relationship in between.
“When I played for Kuriyama-san for the Fighters, I learned a lot through Kuriyama-san,” added Ohtani. “Yes, he is someone who taught me how to play well…”
MIAMI, FLORIDA - MARCH 19: Manager Hideki Kuriyama of Samurai Japan speaks during the Japan Workout and press conference at loanDepot park on March 19, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Masterpress - Samurai Japan/SAMURAI JAPAN via Getty Images)
Against Italy, Ohtani, Japan’s No. 3 hitter, laid down an excellent bunt in the third inning instead of swinging for the fences – then dashed down the first-base line, beating the errant throw. Japan scored four runs in the inning.
The bunt was just one example of the 28-year-old Los Angeles Angels’ two-way standout’s all-around athleticism.
In five tournament games, he’s batting .438 with three doubles, a home run, eight RBIs and seven runs scored.
The home run against Australia was replayed repeatedly on TV news shows and plastered on the front pages of Japan’s national sports dailies. (And it was an instant reminder of news coverage in the run-up to the World Baseball Classic when he whacked a pair of three-run homers in an exhibition game against the Central League’s Hanshin Tigers on March 6.) Sports Hochi newspaper proclaimed at the top of its lead story that it was Ohtani’s first game in Japan in 1,974 days. Precise reporting!
Samurai Japan teammates Yoshida (.400 average, 10 RBIs), Kensuke Kondoh (.389, seven walks, eight runs) and leadoff hitter/St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar (.368, seven runs and two stolen bases plus spectacular defensive work) have spearheaded the offense. And Kazuma Okamoto belted a three-run shot against Italy.
TV ratings have demonstrated how popular this year’s edition of the WBC is in Japan. Forty-six percent of Japan’s households tuned in to watch the Japan-China opener. And huge audiences also showed up at local watering holes and sports bars throughout the country. A week later, baseball fever was even stronger. Jiji Press reported that “The Japan-Italy quarterfinal game earns TV audience rating of 48 percent.”
What’s the catalyst? It all starts with the current reality that Ohtani is the most popular athlete in Japan.
Or as Kuriyama observed: “When we see Shohei playing, all the nation is feeling something extra (about) how he worked hard.”
TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 16: Shohei Ohtani #16 of Team Japan bunts at the bottom of the 3th inning during the World Baseball Classic quarterfinal between Italy and Japan at Tokyo Dome on March 16, 2023 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Gene Wang/Getty Images)
Over the aforementioned first four games of the tourney, Kuriyama handed the starting mound assignment to Ohtani, Darvish, 21-year-old Chiba Lotte Marines sensation Roki Sasaki – who threw a perfect game and struck out 19 batters, including 13 in a row – last April, and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, winner of the Sawamura Award as NPB’s best pitcher in 2021 and ’22 (he went 16-5 with a 1.39 ERA and 206 strikeouts in the former and 15-5, 1.68 ERA and 205 Ks in the latter).
Japan’s pitching depth has been aptly described as an embarrassment of riches.
Yamamoto, the ace of the defending Japan Series champion Orix Buffaloes, dominated against the Aussies. In four scoreless innings, he fanned eight, walked none and allowed just one hit.
Ohtani gave Yamamoto a big boost with a titanic three-run blast to right-center in the opening frame. The ball nearly ricocheted off an Ohtani billboard, landing close to it.
There was no hiding Ohtani’s delight while speaking during his post-game hero interview, a regular occurrence for one (but sometimes two) players in Japan after a game.
“That was a good home run,” an upbeat Ohtani declared. “Hitting a home run at the WBC has been a dream of mine since I was a child. I wanted to hit one soon. It was my first quality at-bat in a while.”
And Yamamoto went about his business with a peace of mind, too.
“We scored three runs in the first inning,” Yamamoto pointed out. “That made me feel so relaxed.”
After defeating Australia and before the focus quickly shifted to preparing for Italy and the single-elimination phase of the tournament, Kuriyama reflected on Japan’s success in Pool B.
“Well, it’s just still the beginning and the middle way through the WBC tournament,” the manager commented. “All we can do is just step-by-step, day-by-day (preparations), and the remaining games are counting down, so we are going to put more concentration for the next day.”
MIAMI, FLORIDA - MARCH 19: Roki Sasaki of Samurai Japan throws during the Japan Workout and press conference at loanDepot park on March 19, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Masterpress - Samurai Japan/SAMURAI JAPAN via Getty Images)
Only one more day is guaranteed for Japan, facing Mexico tonight in the semifinals. But this team is determined to reach the WBC championship game and win it all for the third time, following exhilarating victories in 2006 and ’09, followed by disappointment in 2013 and 2017 (third-place finishes both times).
Sasaki, who turned 21 in November, will start against Mexico. He made five pitching appearances for the Marines in 2021, then started 20 games last year. The results were impressive: 9-4 record, 2.02 ERA and jaw-dropping strikeout/walk numbers (173 Ks, 23 base on balls).
The hard-throwing hurler’s fastball was clocked at 101.9 mph in the first inning against the Czech Republic on March 11, and he worked 3⅔ innings, giving up one unearned run and a pair of hits and throwing 66 pitches. His fastball topped 100 mph 21 times in that span, according to MLB.com.
“I was very honored to be chosen as the starting pitcher on this day,” Sasaki said later. “Unfortunately, I gave up that run in the first, but overall I was happy with my performance and felt I used my pitches effectively.
“We’ve been in good form with the first two wins and I was happy to keep the momentum going.”
The spotlight will be back on Sasaki and Ohtani on Monday night.
And I shouldn’t forget to mention that Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger Munetaka Murakami, who captured the Central League Triple Crown as a 22-year-old in 2022 (.318, 56 homers, 134 RBIs), showed signs of breaking out of a slump against Italy.
Murakami, who is hitting .235 with eight strikeouts in 17 at-bats in five WBC games, delivered a run-scoring double to center against Italy, going 2-for-3 in Japan’s latest win.
“The batters did a great job tonight,” Kuriyama told reporters after the game. “The pitchers did as well. It was an all-around team performance and now we will go to America with the goal of winning the championship.”