The sky will still be the limit as Nippon Pro Baseball's brightest stars open Game 1 of the All-Star series tonight under the roof at Kyocera Dome Osaka.
Strikeout and ERA leader Yu Darvish, (11-4, 2.07 ERA) who made a career-high 165 pitches in his final start before the break, will deliver the first pitch at 6:10 p.m. for the host Pacific League, while the Central League planned to send 39-year-old four-time All-Star Ken Takahashi (7-4, 2.93 ERA) to the hill.
Other four-time All-Stars include Tokyo Yakult's Norichika Aoki, who was the top CL vote-getter among fans and is the league's batting leader, and Yomiuri cleanup man Alex Ramirez--who tops the league with 30 homers and 85 RBIs.
The power-laden Central squad also includes Hanshin cleanup man Tomoaki Kanemoto and Yokohama No. 4 hitter Shunichi Murata (tied for the CL lead with 30 homers).
For the PL, fan favorite G.G. Sato, among the PL leaders in home runs and RBIs, headlines in his first All-Star appearance. He'll be flanked by 11-time All-Star Hiroki Kokubo and Nobuhiko Matsunaka, a nine-time selection, both of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.
But pitching might dominate the series, with the CL packing a lot of late-game heat in the form of three back-end relievers: Kyuji Fujikawa, who leads Japan with 32 saves, and CL hold leader Tomoyuki Kubota of Hanshin who join Yomiuri Giants speedballer Marc Kroon.
Kroon said he's looking forward to playing side-by-side with some the CL's best players, including a league-high six from the front-running Hanshin Tigers. He also said the foreign contingent will add to the experience.
"It'll be fun to go over there with Tyrone [Woods of Chunichi], you've got Lewis, and Alex [Ramirez of Yomiuri]. They're on my team now, so I don't have to get them out--that's always fun," Kroon told the Daily Yomiuri on Saturday.
He also understands that Yokohama closer Hayato Terahara will likely get the call if there's an opportunity for the CL to close out Game 2 at Yokohama Stadium on Friday night.
"If I happen to get a save chance, that's great," said Kroon, who spent his first three seasons with the BayStars before moving to Yomiuri in the offseason.
"I'm just lucky to be here four years and four years in a row make the All-Star team. I would love to pitch in Yokohama. That's where I made a living for three years. But you know, it's not my decision.
"Terahara's also on the team and that's his home field, so like I said, it doesn't really matter to me. I just want to go out there and have fun."
The PL is stacked with starters, but also brings Nippon Ham's Hisashi Takeda, the holds leader with 18, and Orix closer Daisuke Kato, who tops the league with 23 saves.
The PL squad leads the series 73-67-8.
Lewis, 2 others pull out
Hiroshima Carp right-hander Colby Lewis, the CL leader in wins and strikeouts, and two others pulled out of the game on Tuesday night, all citing injuries.
For pulling out of the All-Star game, Lewis, Chunichi right-hander Kazuki Yoshimi and Fukuoka outfielder Hiroshi Shibahara automatically must sit out the first 10 games after the All-Star break, starting on Aug. 3.
Shibahara is dealing with a hernia, Yoshimi is suffering from a sore pitching shoulder, while Lewis has experienced problems in his elbow.
Chunichi lefty Takashi Ogasawara will replace Yoshimi, while Hiroshima righty Kan Otake fills in for Lewis and Chiba Lotte infielder Shoitsu Omatsu completes the roster.
Ochiai commits to next season
Chunichi Dragons skipper Hiromitsu Ochiai, who has guided the club to three Japan Series appearances since 2004, said on Wednesday he plans to come back in 2009.
The Dragons asked the 54-year-old to return next season, saying "We need to reload and we'll have to rely on him in that process."
Ochiai, whose contract ends at the close of this season, indicated he would return for another year.