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HARD DRIVES: A lineup for Hara to face world

by John E. Gibson (Jan 28, 2009)

No doubt about it, Tatsunori Hara is certainly stuck between a rock and a hard pitch.

While he doesn't have to go up against fastballs himself, Hara could strike out when the second World Baseball Classic starts here in Tokyo in March.

The Yomiuri Giants skipper's approval rating was Tokyo Dome-ceiling high after his team came back for a run to the Central League title. At the same time, Japanese pride had taken a knockdown pitch with a fourth-place finish at last summer's Beijing Games.

Suddenly, Hara was made the WBC skipper, and he now has to find the best combination of players to help Japan defend its World title. That's why Hard Drives has some suggestions for Japan's field (WBC) commander and chief.

Looking through the list of 42 players on the provisional roster, let's start up the middle on the infield.

The most important person on the field for Japan will be the catcher, and there is no one more qualified than Kenji Jojima to fill that position. For the most part, he knows Japan's pitchers and, more importantly, he knows much of the competition the team will be facing.

The Seattle Mariners glued him to their bench for much of last season, but Jojima's leadership and knowledge will be invaluable on this stage.

Yomiuri's Shinnosuke Abe, likely the popular choice behind the plate, is a left-handed hitter Hara can bring off the bench or use as a DH. Save his big left-handed pop for other tasks and his nearly 30-year-old body--since he plays for your CL club.

At shortstop, Japan has routinely chosen defense over offense, but Hiroyuki Nakajima of Japan Series champion Seibu plays adequate in the field and adds some pop to a lineup that didn't tear the cover off the ball in 2006.

Let the slap-hit stylings of SoftBank's Munenori Kawasaki be a late-inning replacement or pinch-runner on a team that figures to lack speed.

At second, Kensuke Tanaka should get the nod over Yasuyuki Kataoka of Seibu and Akinori Iwamura of Tampa Bay. His defense is stellar and he can drop down bunts and give the lineup what it needs--from power to clutch hits.

Japan needs someone willing to give himself up, but if you want more offense go with Iwamura over Kataoka. Aki brings attitude and confidence with his revamped swing, and was a difference-maker in the field in the Rays' World Series run last year.

At third, forget about defense and go with CL home run leader Shuichi Murata of Yokohama. Live with his mistakes in the field because he can pay dividends with some misplaced fastballs.

At first, Yomiuri's Michihiro Ogasawara can be productive from his best fielding position. But don't be afraid to replace him with Yokohama's Seiichi Uchikawa when the numbers call for a switch. The team loses power, but gains in on-base percentage with half as many strikeouts.

Also, say goodbye to broken-down veteran Nobuhiko Matsunaka--a notorious under-performer in playoff formats.

In a left-hander-heavy outfield, start Yakult's Norichika Aoki in center, put Ichiro Suzuki in right and lead him off so he's comfortable--and won't complain--and go with Nippon Ham veteran Atsunori Inaba in left.

The Chicago Cubs' Kosuke Fukudome is also available for spot duty and had two of Japan's biggest hits off the bench in the 2006 semifinal and final.

On the mound, Nippon Ham's Yu Darvish is No. 1, followed by Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hisashi Iwakuma of Rakuten. Japan Series MVP Takayuki Kishi proved against the Giants that he can do it all, so take advantage of that.

Rakuten's Masahiro Tanaka can also help get the game to mound men like Boston's Hideki Okajima and Cleveland's Masahide Kobayashi--real relievers and not guys thrown into unfamiliar roles.

The closer: Hanshin's Kyuji Fujikawa.

Most importantly, though, Hara has to define the roles he wants each player to perform and not waver. Hoshino toyed with his Olympic lineup, sat down some players and shuffled pitchers from starting to relieving roles until no one knew which way was up.

There is no upside to being the WBC manager, but win or lose, Hara can still be a hit for getting it right.


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