MLB stars put Japan on track to take back the WBC crown

Rocky Sasaki. Favorite

After back-to-back Classic Baseball semi-final exits, a strong cadre of MLB regulars put Samurai Japan in a strong position to win their third championship title in March and their first since 2009.

Two-way star Shuhei Ohtani, the MLB’s 2021 MVP, signed veteran outfielder Yu Darvish and outfielder Seiya Suzuki, after two championships most MLB players have refused to participate in.

When the Pool B action begins at the Tokyo Dome on March 9, these three will provide a veteran core surrounded by an amazing group of young talent currently playing in Nippon Professional Baseball.

Samurai Japan is expected to have 22-year-old Triple Crown winner Munetaka Murakami, 21-year-old perfect shooter Roki Sasaki, and 24-year-old Yoshinobu Yamamoto, winner of the last two Sawamura Awards, As the most admired archer in Japan.

Munetaka Murakami. Favorite

This trio, and a supporting cast of seasoned homegrown talent, makes Japan the favorite to reach the semifinals. By taking some of the pressure off the domestic unit, the MLB stars are standing up to give Samurai Japan a rocket boost that will make them hard to beat anywhere.

This would be Darvish’s and Suzuki’s second WBC and Otani’s first after he was sidelined in 2017 with an ankle injury. The participation of the trio reflects the growing interest in the spring tournament among MLB regulars from other countries.

The defending champion USA already has a star-studded list of commitments led by outfielders Mike Trott of the Los Angeles Angels from Ohtani and Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who also signed fellow three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw.

While there has been a broader trend of MLB’s MVP looking to play for their countries, the response from Japan’s overseas stars has probably been warmed by the hiring of Japan’s most qualified samurai coach since 2009.

Hideki Kuriyama won two Pacific League pennants and a Japan Series in his 10 years as coach of the Nippon Ham Fighters from 2012 to 2021. During that time, he orchestrated Ohtani’s development into perhaps the most talented baseball player on the planet.

Mike Trout. Favorite

In 2006 and 2009, the Japanese MLB All-Stars, led by Ichiro Suzuki, played big in their first two championships. But the band overseas has mostly stayed away from the 2013 and 2017 bands, and Ohtani’s connection is likely a significant factor in Kuriyama’s hiring.

Since the WBC began in 2006, the selection of a manager has been precarious. The first two titles were won by veteran coaches spending time away from their clubs – something no one was willing to do in 2013.

The MLB stars stayed away when the long-retired Koji Yamamoto was hired, whose single major league title came in 1991. Japan swung the other way in 2017, with Hiroki Kokubo, who hadn’t even coached before Japan’s samurai party, and outfielder Norishika Aoki. The only MLB representative.

Shuhei Ohtani. Favorite

Kuriyama’s appointment is a signal to the players that Japan is committed to success and has a plan that has not been evident in the past two tournaments.

It never made sense for Otani, Darvish and Suzuki to join for 2023 and sacrifice time they would normally spend in off-season recovery and spring training with their respective clubs.

No player’s workload in a season can compare with that of Ohtani, the first MLB player since the inception of the World Series era in 1903 to qualify for both ERA titles in the same season. However, even with his claim to be a two-way player, Otani was the first to sign up.

Darvish is playing despite making the playoffs last year with the San Diego Padres, while Suzuki is giving up a chance for his first full pre-season with his fellow Chicago Cubs after it was cut short last year due to the owners lockout.

With Kuriyama in charge, Japan called up MLB stars and, for the first time since 2009, lined up to play, and that must be something.

Next year’s tournament, originally scheduled for 2021, expands from 16 to 20 teams, with four groups of five teams in the first round. Japan’s Group B includes China, Australia, South Korea and the Czech Republic.

The top two teams from each round-robin pool advance to the knockout stage, starting in the quarter-finals. Both Group B qualifiers will face off against the two Taiwan-based Group A qualifiers, with the winners advancing to the semifinals March 19-20 in Miami.

A photo taken on July 5, 2022 shows Depot Park, home of the Major League Baseball team the Miami Marlins in Miami, Florida. (kyodo) == kyudo

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