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Uehara makes cut for Beijing

by Jim Allen (Jul 18, 2008)

Japan manager Senichi Hoshino overlooked Koji Uehara's poor form this season to bring the Yomiuri Giants right-hander's big-time international experience to the Beijing Olympics.

Aware that Uehara has been hit hard all season, Hoshino nevertheless showed his confidence in the ace-turned-reliever when he named him to Japan's 24-man Olympic team on Thursday.

A day after Uehara allowed two inherited runs to score and gave up three more of his own without getting an out, Hoshino still showed confidence in the veteran.

"He is a terrific international player because of his stuff, his delivery and his experience," Hoshino said.

"Of course, I was watching TV last night and shouting, 'Come on get him out!' He didn't, but give him a week and he'll be OK."

Not surprisingly, Uehara was reserved in his reaction to the news. Asked if he considered dropping out as a candidate for the team, Uehara replied, "To be honest, I'm still agonizing over it."

Talking to the press at Haneda Airport after returning from the Giants' Hokkaido series, he added, "I think the selection should be based on results, and as I'm the only one without results, I sometimes wonder whether this is right."

The theme for assembling the team was a combination of athleticism, enthusiasm, experience and guts.

"It's a nerve-wracking, stressful competition, so it's not only about raw ability, but about not giving up," said pitching coach Yutaka Ono.

"Those are the qualities we are looking for. And that's why we included a lot of players with big international experience."

Ono settled what Hoshino called the trickiest issue of the selection process, by deciding 10 pitchers would be plenty.

The pitching staff consists of seven starters and three relievers--including Uehara. The other two are closers Hitoki Iwase of Chunichi and Kyuji Fujikawa of Hanshin.

Hoshino said he is planning not for nine games, but looking exclusively at the seven qualifying games prior to the medal round in what will be the toughest Olympic tournament ever.

"If two of the starters throw four innings each, I can turn them around on four-days rest and still have Uehara, Iwase and Fujikawa in reserve.

The only Central League starting pitcher is Kenshin Kawakami, whose Dragons are supplying four players, the most of any team, to the squad.

The Pacific Leagues' starters are Fukuoka SoftBank southpaws Tsuyoshi Wada and Toshiya Sugiuchi, Chiba Lotte lefty Yoshihisa Naruse, and right-handers Yu Darvish of Hokkaido Nippon Ham, Hideaki Wakui of Saitama Seibu and Tohoku Rakuten youngster Masahiro Tanaka.

"I really didn't think I would be picked," Tanaka said at Tokyo Dome before a game against the Fighters. "So I will remember the guys who wanted to go but weren't chosen."

Hoshino said he was bringing back two-thirds of the players who swept last year's Asian Championships in Taiwan to book Japan's berth in Beijing, but that he could not overlook some new faces who have impressed him.

"When I look at someone like Lions outfielder [G.G.] Sato, I see someone who has come so far in a short time and is absolutely driven," said Hoshino, who also named Lions shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima to the Olympic team for the first time.

"Nakajima has been saying he was going all out to be on the team. And that's what we want.

"I want the guys with experience, who've been there before, to tell the new guys what it's like. Although we will have only a short time to come together as a team, I expect we will."

Hoshino named Tokyo Yakult infielder Shinya Miyamoto as captain for his second straight Olympics. He was also the captain of Japan's World Baseball Classic-winning team in 2006.

Miyamoto and Nakajima will give Hoshino four shortstops to choose from along with the Hawks' Munenori Kawasaki and the Marines' Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

The only second baseman chosen was the Dragons' Masahiro Araki, while first base will be held down by the Tigers' Takahiro Arai and third by the Yokohama BayStars' Shuichi Murata.

The catching duties will be shared by Yomiuri's Shinnosuke Abe, the Marines' Tomoya Satozaki and the Tigers' Akihiro Yano.

Coach Koichi Tabuchi said that past international competition has taught the staff that the ability to put the ball in play is more important than raw power.

"We learned in Taiwan last year that with international umpires, you can't depend on their strike zone, so you have to be able to swing," he said. "That's why we're going less for power and more for guys who are going to build rallies."

Murata, a potent power hitter, would seem an exception, but Tabuchi defended the slugger's selection.

"He hits homers, true, but if you watch, you'll see he hits a lot of them to right field, so he's thinking of more than home runs," Tabuchi said of the right-handed-hitting CL home run champ.

"On top of that, when we needed a run in Taiwan, he led off a key inning by getting hit with a pitch and responded by pumping his fist.

"He was more than happy to take one for the team because for him, it's about the team. When the team split up, he said, 'See you in Beijing,' and I'm really glad we will."

Hoshino named two players who are now benched with injuries: Arai, and the Fighters' Atsunori Inaba, one of just four outfielders on the squad. Hoshino called both players to check on their condition.

"He asked me about my condition," Inaba said. "The call lasted two or three minutes. When he asked if I would play, I said I would and that was the end of the call."

If Hoshino was inspired by the players' attitudes, he was disappointed by his lack of options in the outfield.

"Frankly, I can't believe the current quality," he said. "Too few of our best outfielders [in Japan pro ball], the guys who are reliable hitters and have the arms to play right field, are Japanese."

With only Sato, Yakult's Norichika Aoki and Chunichi's Masahiko Morino to ease the outfield burden, Inaba will have no choice but to be healthy and stay healthy.

"Obviously, I will work hard to be fit--I have to be fit," Inaba said. "If I feel any anxiety about my condition, I'll have to pass, because you can't do something like this halfway."


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