Veteran pitcher Masahiro Tanaka will get another chance to add an Olympic gold medal to his impressive list of baseball accomplishments.
Tanaka, who returned to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles this year after seven seasons with the New York Yankees, was among the 24 players called up for the Japanese national baseball team for the Tokyo Olympics.
The 32-year-old right-hander is 2-4 this season with 2.90 ERA and 47 strikeouts in nine games.
Tanaka was a member of the 2008 Beijing Olympic team that did not win a medal and has spoken of his desire to atone for disappointment in the experience when Japan host the Olympics next month.
“There were some frustrating memories,” said Tanaka, who refused to run in seven innings in three games in 2008. “So I’m determined to win a medal this time. I want to be the player who does everything to get the job done. “
Tanaka was one of eleven pitchers named by Japan’s manager Atsunori Inaba at a press conference on Wednesday June 16. Other prominent pitchers are Yoshinobu Yamamoto of the Orix Buffaloes and Tomoyuki Sugano of the Yomiuri Giants.
Yamamoto could be the ace on the staff. The 23-year-old right-hander has had a strong season for the surprising Orix Buffaloes. He leads the Pacific League in ERA (2.08) and has already won six.
The closer Yasuaki Yamasaki, who had 30 saves in 2019 and was a member of the Premier12 championship team that same year, was also named despite battling the Yokohama DeNA BayStars that season.
However, one of the best throwers in Japan had to be out of action due to an injury. Fukuoka Softbank Hawks ace Kodai Senga, who twisted his ankle on April 6 and was later diagnosed with a ligament injury, was not named to the roster.
Inaba’s impressions of Roster Rost
Inaba, a former member of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, who represented Japan at the World Baseball Classic, emphasized speed and strength.
Among the named players Inaba expects to produce on the record are outfielder Yuki Yanagita of the Hawks, Seiya Suzuki of the Hiroshima Carp and infielder Hayato Sakamoto of the Yomiuri Giants.
“The selected players have a lot of speed and strength – two qualities that I’ve been talking about since my appointment,” Inaba said at the press conference on Wednesday. “These players give us the best chance of winning a gold medal.”
Two newcomers to the national team are the young carp pitcher Masato Morishita (23) and the 24-year-old Ryoji Kuribayashi, who as a rookie is one of the leaders in the Central League.
Hopes for the host country’s medal
Of all the gold medals on offer at the Summer Olympics this summer, one could easily argue that baseball is the most sought after by the host country.
Japan has not won a gold medal in baseball since the sport became an official Olympic event at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Team Japan won bronze that year, silver in Atlanta in 1996 and bronze again in Athens in 2004. Baseball is not on the agenda at the Paris Olympics in 2024.
Inaba has proven to be a successful manager since taking office in 2017. He led Japan to the championship at the 2019 Premier12 tournament – Japan’s first win in a major international competition since the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
The 48-year-old former outfielder represented Japan at the WBC in 2009 and 2013. He retired as a player in 2014 after recording 2,167 hits and 261 homers over a 20-year career.
Baseball was removed from the Olympic program after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but was reinstated for the Tokyo Games in part because of its overwhelming popularity in Japan.
Six teams will participate in the tournament: Japan, the United States, Mexico, South Korea, Israel and one more team from a group of three qualifiers including the Netherlands, Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
Players from the 40-strong Major League Baseball team cadre are not allowed to participate, meaning Japan will have to forego players like Shohei Ohtani, Yu Darvish and Kenta Maeda.
The Tokyo 2020 tournament begins on July 28th at the Fukushima Azuma Stadium. The gold and bronze games will be played at Yokohama Stadium on August 7th.
Japan’s 24-man squad
Jugs: Masahiro Tanaka (Rakuten Eagles), Yoshinobu Yamamoto (Orix Buffaloes), Masato Morishita (Hiroshima Carp), Ryoji Kuribayashi (Hiroshima Carp), Tomoyuki Sugano (Yomiuri Giants), Koyo Aoyagi (Hanshin Tigers), Suguru Iwazaki. YasuHanshinmas Tigersaki), (Yokohama BayStars), Yudai Ono (Chunichi Dragons), Kota Nakagawa (Yomiuri Giants), Kaima Taira (Seibu Lions).
Catcher: Takuya Kai (Softbank Hawks), Tsubasa Aizawa (Hiroshima carp).
Infielder: Tetsuto Yamada (Yakult Swallows), Sosuke Genda (Seibu Lions), Hideto Asamura (Rakuten Eagles), Ryosuke Kikuchi (Hiroshima Carp), Hayato Sakamoto (Yomiuri Giants), Munetaka Murakami (Yakult Swallows).
Outfield players: Kensuke Kondo, Nippon Ham Fighters, Yuki Yanagita (Softbank Hawks), Ryouya Kurihara (Softbank Hawks), Masataka Yoshida (Orix Buffaloes), Seiya Suzuki (Hiroshima Carp).
Author: Jim Armstrong
The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for more than 25 years. You can find his articles Here, Forward to JAPAN.