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Samurai Japan in shambles on eve of WBC

Flash Mar. 10
Flash Mar. 10

TOKYO (TR) – With the Asia Round of the World Baseball Classic set to start today, Japan’s weekly and daily tabloids are suggesting that infighting within defending champion Japan, skippered by the Yomiuri Giants Tatsunori Hara and anchored by MLB stars Ichiro Suzuki and Akinori Iwamura, could be making a repeat title increasingly challenging.

Sandwiched between photo spreads of the lovely AV actress Rio and busty pinup idol Yoko Kumada in the March 17 issue of Flash is the article “Ichiro & Iwamura losing faith in Hara’s judgment.” The two-page story details the ongoing distrust and isolation among certain players within Samurai Japan, which will open the WBC tonight against China at Tokyo Dome.

The weekly believes Ichiro, who struggled through the series of warmup games leading up to the classic and went hitless in four at bats in a 7-2 loss to the Seibu Lions on Saturday, is not pleased with Hara’s decision to hit him third in the lineup, a move that the right-fielder, who usually bats leadoff, is alleged to have found out simply by seeing Norichika Aoki of the Yakult Swallows at the top of the lineup card — and not through an explanation from the manager.

A beat writer tells Flash: “Ichiro’s passion for hitting leadoff is strong. It is understandable that he feels frustrated when he finds out without explanation and only through a sheet of paper that shows Aoki hitting first and him third. In the last WBC, Sadaharu Oh put Ichiro in the third slot for the semi-finals, but he called Ichiro into the manager’s office and directly explained the reason. Ichiro in response was very moved.”

The article adds that Ichiro exploded during the remainder of the games in that inaugural tournament in 2006, leading Japan to the title.

Iwamura, who customarily hits leadoff for the Tampa Bay Rays, is as well displeased with Aoki’s placement in the lineup. Flash then takes a quote from Hara in spring training about creating an enjoyable environment in which players can enjoy playing and wonders: How can he?

The dailies that hit the streets on Sunday (Mar. 1) were relentless in trashing team Japan following its loss to Seibu, which was composed of a mix of major and minor leaguers. Sports Hochi announced the game as a “Total Loss” and quoted Hara as saying: “I am glad it was only an exhibition.” The Tokyo edition of Chunichi Sports said: “This is not the Ichiro we know — he can’t hit, he can’t run. Samurai Japan is falling apart.” The headline for Nikkan Sports simply printed Ichiro’s batting average over the first five exhibitions games (.167) in large red script next to a photo of the star of the Seattle Mariners lunging for a pitch out of the strike zone.

Yu Darvish, too, has struggled. The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters right-handed ace, scheduled to be on the mound tonight, is believed by the tabloid to be having difficulties adjusting to the characteristics of the WBC baseball, which is said to be larger and slicker.

A sportswriter says: “Because he didn’t have good results at the Beijing Olympics, which used a similar ball as the WBC, Darvish spent a lot of time in the offseason getting accustomed to it. Now he is becoming kind of nervous, getting pushed over the edge.”

The article supposes that these difficulties could result in Darvish not making the move to MLB.

Flash also documents conflicts taking place within the coaching staff — notably the disagreement between pitching coach Hisashi Yamada and Hara about who will close games — and the ostracizing of two members of the Yomiuri Giants (outfielder Yoshiyuki Kamei and pitcher Tetsuya Utsumi) by the MLB veterans, most notably Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox. The tabloid concludes that there is no longer time for such squabbles; the games are set to start. Play ball!

Update: Numerous dailies are reporting today (Mar. 5) that Ichiro will indeed be in the leadoff spot, Aoki at number three and Iwamura hitting eighth.