After two unimpressive outings against their fellow-NPB players, Japan's Olympic baseball team gets thrown into the deep end tonight.
Fresh off an 11-2 thrashing Saturday at the hands of a Central League select team at Tokyo Dome, Japan manager Senichi Hoshino and his men get down to business by opening their Beijing Olympic campaign with a tough matchup Wednesday against defending champion and amateur baseball powerhouse Cuba.
After Saturday, however, Hoshino was far from ready to hit the panic button.
"One play can change the whole complexion of a game," Hoshino said. "I've seen it happen many times. It just better not happen in China."
Japan, which finished third in Athens four years ago, is still very much among the favorites in Beijing. Besides Cuba, others in the eight-team draw expected to challenge for the gold include the United States, South Korea and Taiwan. Rounding out the field are Canada, the Netherlands and host China.
Although Japan has a solid lineup, expected aces Yu Darvish and Kenshin Kawakami came out flat in the two warm-up games.
Nippon-Ham Fighter Darvish, whose 2.07 ERA is second-best in Japanese baseball, went three pedestrian innings for Japan in a 6-4 win over a PL team on Friday, giving up two runs on four hits while striking out three.
"I'm sure I'll be better when it counts," said the confident Darvish, who turns 22 this weekend, and in all likelihood he will.
Darvish, a power pitcher, has a habit of coming up big in big games and he could hardly be expected to crank it up against a club made up of several of his teammates.
Kawakami, on the other hand, was shelled in Saturday's loss. The Chunichi Dragons veteran right-hander was lit up for nine runs (five earned) on seven hits--including a pair of home runs--and a walk. He left the game without even registering an out.
"Kawakami's control was off a bit, but I think he'll be fine when we get to China," Hoshino said. "I just want the pitchers to concentrate on every pitch. I really want them to remember that every ball they throw is important in a tournament like this."
All is not gloom and doom, however. Softbank Hawks lefty Tsuyoshi Wada has regained his old form and he looked nearly unhittable in three innings of work Saturday. Wada, one of the few holdovers from the 2004 Athens team, worked three effective innings, giving up just a single and striking out the side in the third inning.
"Wada was nearly perfect , he did a very good job," Hoshino said. "The other pitchers, I can't say they were perfect but they are getting better."
Japan also sports a solid bullpen featuring the likes of Kyuji Fujikawa and Hitoki Iwase, closers with the Hanshin Tigers and Dragons, respectively. Also, Yomiuri Giants reliever Koji Uehara, a controversial pick by Hoshino & Co., has started to come around recently. He gave up a hit in the eighth inning Saturday, but he also struck out two batters.
Japan's offense stalled somewhat as well, but you can bet the farm that the 0-for-4 posted by Yakult Swallows outfielder Norichika Aoki on Saturday was an aberration. The man was born to hit a baseball and few do it better or as frequently.
With BayStars slugger Shuichi Murata, Hanshin's Takahiro Arai, Nippon-Hammer Atsunori Inaba and Seibu's G.G. Sato providing the pop, and guys like Aoki, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Munenori Kawasaki and Masahiro Araki burning up the basepaths, Japan has a good blend of speed and power.
Catchers Tomoya Satozaki and Shinnosuke Abe call good games behind the plate and pack a wallop in the batter's box.
After today's opener against Cuba, Japan faces Taiwan on Thursday, the Netherlands on Friday, South Korea on Saturday, Canada on Monday and China on Tuesday before wrapping up preliminary-round play against the United States on Aug. 20.
"We've got lots of data on the other teams, so I'm not too worried," Hoshino said. "I am a bit concerned that we haven't played together much--just two games--but that's no excuse. I want to show the quality of Japanese baseball."