Manager Senichi Hoshino and his coaching staff announced Japan's 24-man roster for this summer's Beijing Olympics, and some of the choices were not without controversy.
The first name read out at a well-attended news conference at a Tokyo hotel on Thursday afternoon was Koji Uehara, the Yomiuri Giants veteran right-hander who has spent most of this season in the minors trying to get his game--and his confidence--in order.
"There were many difficult decisions to make," admitted Hoshino. "We had to take into account issues such as injuries, but we feel this is a very good team for Beijing."
Japan's roster is solid enough and the team is definitely one of the favorites for the gold medal, but while the struggling Uehara was included on the team, Hisashi Iwakuma, a Rakuten Eagles' righty who currently leads all NPB pitchers in wins with a 12-3 record, did not make the cut.
Uehara's inclusion comes on the heels of another disastrous outing Wednesday in Sapporo, when he entered the game against Chunichi with two out in the eighth inning and gave up a walk and two consecutive RBI doubles in a 5-1 loss to the Dragons. Uehara failed to record an out and his ERA stands at 6.46.
"Anyone who saw Uehara pitch last night would naturally have a lot of reservations," Hoshino said, "but we think he has time to regain his form before the Olympics."
Hoshino added he liked the fact that Uehara, a 33-year-old veteran, has been successful on the international stage in the past, pitching in both the 2004 Athens Olympics, where Japan took the bronze, and the inaugural World Baseball Classic, won by Japan in 2006.
Iwakuma, by contrast, has not been successful in international baseball and the selectors were apparently worried about his mental toughness.
Japan decided to go with 10 pitchers in Beijing, with Nippon-Ham Fighters ace right-hander Yu Darvish heading the list. Also on the staff are Kenshin Kawakami and Hitoki Iwase (Chunichi), Kyuji Fujikawa (Hanshin), Yoshihisa Naruse (Lotte), Tsuyoshi Wada and Toshiya Sugiuchi (Softbank), Masahiro Tanaka (Rakuten) and Hideaki Wakui (Seibu).
Darvish is 11-3 this season with an NPB-best 1.93 ERA (prior to Thursday's game).
Coach Koji Yamamoto said the decision to go with 10 pitchers instead of 11 was the biggest one they had to make, "but we decided to go with 10 to give us an extra position player ... in a short tournament like this, we felt that was the way to go."
Most of the pitchers named are starters with their clubs, but Hoshino said he would be free to use them in relief as well, provided they didn't go too deep in their starts.
"We felt balance was important in selecting our pitchers," added pitching coach Yutaka Ono. "We went with a group we were confident could play well under pressure."
Offensively, Japan will be led by speedy Yakult Swallows center-fielder Norichika Aoki, who is hitting .343 this year with 11 home runs. Yokohama BayStars third baseman Shuichi Murata, the defending Central League home run king, is once again among the league leaders in homers (24) and RBIs (63).
The catchers are Shinnosuke Abe (Yomiuri), Akihiro Yano (Hanshin) and Tomoya Satozaki (Lotte), who called most of the games in the WBC.
Besides Murata, the infielders include Masahiro Araki (Chunichi), Hiroyuki Nakajima (Seibu), and WBC holdovers Takahiro Arai (Hanshin), Shinya Miyamoto (Yakult), Tsuyoshi Nishioka (Lotte) and Munenori Kawasaki (Softbank).
Patrolling the outfield will be Aoki, Masahiko Morino (Chunichi), Atsunori Inaba (Nippon-Ham), and G.G. Sato (Seibu).
Both Arai (lower back) and Inaba (muscle strain) are battling injury right now, but Hoshino said he spoke to both players and they assured him they'd be ready to go in Beijing.