Strongest-Ever Samurai Squad Raises Hopes of Regaining Championship

The latest “Samurai Japan” baseball team is being touted as the “strongest ever,” but can it regain the title of being No. 1 in the world? The tournament, a gathering of the greatest players from around the globe matching their strength and skills, cannot come soon enough.

The 30 members of the Japan team for the 2023 World Baseball Classic (WBC), which pits nations and regions against each other, have been announced, with Japan aiming to regain the title after falling short in the last two tournaments. It begins its quest with a first-round game at Tokyo Dome on March 9.

The 2023 tournament was originally scheduled for 2021, but was postponed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. It is hoped that by being held for the first time in six years, it will provide an opportunity to break the sense of stagnation in society.

The main focus will certainly be on two-way star Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels, who has taken Major League Baseball by storm as both a pitcher and batter. Last season, he won 15 games on the mound while hitting 34 home runs at the plate, and was the first player in MLB’s World Series era to qualify to be among the league leaders as both a pitcher and hitter in the same year. He will be playing in Japan for the first time in five years.

The team includes a lineup of young, talented players. In addition to Munetaka Murakami of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, who last season became the youngest player in Japan pro baseball history to win a batting Triple Crown, the squad features pitchers Roki Sasaki of the Chiba Lotte Marines, who tossed a perfect game, and Taisei Ota of the Yomiuri Giants, who was named the Central League Rookie of the Year after recording 37 saves.

How well can the skills of these young Japanese samurai translate on the world stage? This will be one of the main points of interest.

The selection of Japanese-American outfielder Lars Nootbaar of the St. Louis Cardinals will likely provide a breath of fresh air for Samurai Japan. Although he has never played in Japan, his mother is Japanese, making him eligible to play for the country. He is expected to act as a link between the Japanese and U.S. baseball worlds.

The difference between victory and defeat will come down to the strategy for using pitchers in relief. As before, it is expected that the number of pitches a pitcher is allowed to throw in one game will be limited to 65 in first-round games and 95 in the semifinals and final. A pitcher who throws at least 50 pitches will need four days rest until his next mound appearance.

The way that Samurai Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama uses his mound staff in response to each situation, while also preparing for the games ahead, is seen as key.

Japan’s rivals are also packed with strong rosters. For example, the defending champion United States is expected to feature a star-studded pitching and batting lineup that will include Ohtani’s teammate Mike Trout, a three-time winner of the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award.

The Dominican Republic and a number of other teams are also expected to have lineups that include top major leaguers, a sign of how serious they are taking the event. Heading into the fifth edition of the tournament, it can be said that the competition has reached a level befitting a true world championship.

At last year’s soccer World Cup, Japan’s victories over traditional powers as it marched ahead in the tournament roused the nation. Now it is baseball’s turn.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 27, 2023)