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Monday, March 13, 2006

Japan pitchers must step up


Staff writer

It was such a humiliation for the Japanese pitchers.

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Shunsuke Watanabe beaned three batters in his start against South Korea, and all in all, Team Japan's starting pitchers had flawed performances in the first round of the World Baseball Classic at Tokyo Dome.

Not just Hirotoshi Ishii's performance in the top of the eighth inning, in which he gave up a game-winning homer to Lee Seung Yeop, in Team Japan's 3-2 loss to Korea on March 5, but the whole pitching staff in the "Hinomaru" uniform has yet to show its best pitching in the World Baseball Classic.

Ishii's collapse was the most costly of Team Japan's mound meltdowns in WBC play.

Japan's starters also failed to impress.

Koji Uehara started against China but gave up a stunning two-run homer to Wang Wei in the fourth inning. The game was an 18-2 rout of the Chinese, but Uehara later expressed his emotion, saying, "I want to cry."

Japan had another one-sided win over Taiwan, but it was hard to feel a "monster" performance from the starter Daisuke Matsuzaka on that night, either. The 25-year-old right-hander allowed one run in four innings, but the run scored when he committed a balk with runners on first and third in the second inning.

Japan manager Sadaharu Oh sent deceptive submarine pitcher Shunsuke Watanabe to the mound against Korea, believing he would keep the Koreans off-balance with his unique pitching mechanics, which Watanabe somehow did, also hitting three batters (two of them against former Chunichi Dragon Lee Byung Kyu) in 4 2/3 innings.

"I left the mound in the worst way possible," said Watanabe, whom Oh originally said would be the ace of the staff.

So, overall, Japan's pitchers have problems to fix for the second round. And those will have to be taken care of in Anaheim, where Japan and Korea pick up WBC action from March 12-26.

After the loss to Korea, Ichiro said the team was filled with an insulting atmosphere and the players felt "mortified" by the defeat.

If the Japanese players are preserving the "mortifying" emotions, Round 2 is the stage they should display those. Especially the pitchers have to step up because they are Japan's main fleet in the WBC.

"Usually, I regard substances (of my pitching) as important," Matsuzaka said. "So sometimes I feel unsatisfied even if I win. But on the other hand, there have been games that I couldn't win even if I gave a satisfactory performance. I feel now that it is good to put up a win even if the substances are bad."

Matsuzaka makes a good point. Winning is the most important thing in the WBC.

But if you want to really win, you don't make small mistakes, that could cost a game in baseball, like Uehara's pitch that gave up a homer, Matsuzaka's balk, and Watanabe's hit batsmen.

Some Japanese sports papers have reported that Toshiya Sugiuchi may step up as a starter in the second round. There is no surprise in that because Sugiuchi, the Pacific League's Sawamura Award winner of last year with the league's best 18 wins and a 2.10 ERA, is very stable and composed.

In the relieving corps, Japan has a little problem. Ishii of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, who has a 150-km fastball and is considered the best reliever along with Texas Ranger Akinori Otsuka on Oh's squad, left the team Saturday because he felt discomfort in his left shoulder before Thursday's match against the Rangers in Surprise, Ariz.

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks reliever Takahiro Mahara has been called up in place of Ishii, but although Mahara notched the league's second-best 22 saves last year he is still young and his experience is no match for that of Ishii.



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