Friday, March 10, 2006

Raw Like Sushi

My matchup of "extreme interest" is finally upon us. As an American resident of Japan, I long for the rare opportunity to watch the US in competition with Team Nippon.

For one thing, it gives me the chance to actually see an American sporting event live. With Ichiro, Iguchi, and Matsui in the Major Leagues games are broadcast in the mornings over here and I can always catch them live....well, if it weren't for that whole "work" thing. Of course, the number of Japanese players in the major leagues these days has spread the coverage among more players, which eternally frustrates me when I am looking forward to a Yankee game. It has happened in the past that a Hideo Nomo start for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays has trumped coverage of a Yankees vs. Indians game, or something to that effect.

Matsui is such a fan favorite and the Yankees are a world famous franchise that I don't have to suffer from too many weeks without at least one or two Yankees games. It happens, but I live with it. The important games are always on without fail, and NHK has done their homework to select every battle with Boston and of course all the matchups between the Yanks and Mariners. It was always convenient when the two guys to watch were Ichiro and Matsui, because you'd get a double-header with the two on opposite coasts. Those days are sadly going away. (Thanks Iguchi).

With Japan and the US meeting in the World Baseball Classic (minus Matsui) my chances to razz my co-workers increase as well. The Japanese are always on guard to maintain balance in terms of public comments and opinions expressed openly. I, on the other hand, am an American....and a New Yorker at that. I have no problem living by the social standards that govern proper etiquette, until my team is up against theirs. I was speaking with a co-worker the other day on the prospect of the US and Japan facing off, and he said in typically Japanese fashion, "It would be nice to see that game. Japan would be lucky to win."

Of course, the right thing to say would be, "Yes. It should make for a very interesting matchup." However, what I actually said was, "HAAAAA! If Japan beats the US, I'll buy you dinner!" He walked away with a grin on his face and said, "I'll remember that."

It looks like the matchup will be San Diego's Jake Peavy against the Yomiuri Giants' Koji Uehara. The pitch limit in the second round goes up from 65 to 80 and we should see a shortening of the rotation as a result. If you read my pieces on the Asian Round of the WBC, you'll know that I don't think much of Uehara despite his nice numbers for the Yomiuri Giants. He throws a decent splitter, but the enduring pictures in my mind are of 5th and 6th inning meltdowns that ruin stellar starts.

The US team will have the lumber out, and look to let things fly against the Japanese team. Most of their pitchers throw a lot of off speed stuff and there isn't a plus fastball among least that will find the zone consistently. If Uehara and company can keep the US hitters off balance, it could be a close affair. If they try to sneak a fastball or a slider past any of our Big Leaguers look for it to land in Guatemala. Keeping the sliders and sinkers down against the US, and relying on location with the rest of the pitches will determine the Japanese success.
On the flip side, the US should expect the Japanese to play station to station. A few guys have MLB power, but Oh likes to manage small ball style. If Uehara keeps the US off the board early, I guarantee you'll see early bunting in effect. A run here or there will be considered a big success for Japan if they can take a 1-0, or 2-0 lead. Keeping Ichiro off base as much as possible will be a key factor in forcing Oh's hand with his use of small ball. If there are Japanese on 1st and 3rd during this game, you'll know things aren't going well for America.

The key players for Japan are:

Ichiro Suzuki, RF: 2001 AL MVP and 262 hits in 2004. Nuff said.
Tsuyoshi Nishioka, 2B: He can handle the bat, fields a slick 2B, and can fly, but weak OBP.
Kosuke Fukudome, CF: Good ballplayer. Good eye and decent power.
Nobuhiko Matsunaka, DH: 2004 Triple Crown and MVP. Big test against MLB pitching.
Hitoshi Tamura, LF: Fair player who is on a tear right now.
Michihiro Ogasawara, 1B: My guy. Fear him hitting 7th in this lineup. He'll beat you.

As far as pitching against the US goes, you know about Uehara. The only other legit guy on the roster that you may see in this game is Akinori Otsuka of the Rangers. He's the real deal. The rest of their pitchers (with the exception of Game 2 starter Daisuke Matsuzaka) are batting practice.

For more information about Japanese baseball history and culture, I recommend the following books:
1. "You Gotta Have Wa", Robert Whiting (1989)
2. "The Meaning of Ichiro". Robert Whiting (2004)
3. "Slugging It Out in Japan", Warren Cromartie and Robert Whiting (1991)
4. "Sadaharu Oh: A Zen Way of Baseball", Oh and David Falkner (1985)


Anonymous said...

Not to back track here, but how bad was that South African team!? That last pitcher they had would probably have a hard time making a junior coolege team in the states. I know he was only 17 but he was topping out in the low 80's.

Anonymous said...

college, sorry about the misspell.

Mike Plugh said...

The crazy thing about the group of 17 year olds going up against the US, is that they managed to score 8 runs against Canada and 4 against Mexico.

How does that team score 8 runs against you?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, no kidding. I actually felt embarrassed for them by the end of that game. Once, when South Africa's catcher let the ball get away from him and he could not find it, I saw Ken Griffey Sr. actually hide his mouth to keep people from seeing him laugh. Really, I do hope that this does not discourage them over there in S.A., but that was ugly.

Mike Plugh said...

I was in South Africa over Christmas and New Years and I saw no signs of baseball of any kind. Supposedly the Western Cape, where I happened to be staying, is the South African capital for baseball. Could have fooled me.

I think they love sports a lot, but it goes in the following order:

1. Soccer
2. Rugby
3. Cricket

Baseball must be on the radar to some degree, but I expect it will be a long time before they are even remotely competetive. The great thing about the WBC is that it gives them some incentive and something to shoot for.

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