Baseball Japan, South Korea stay ahead in east-west showdown


March 17, 2019; Tokyo, Japan; Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto (6) squirms to throw the ball to first base to complete a double game in the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners at the Tokyo Dome. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports / File Photo

OAKLAND, Calif., July 5 (Reuters) – Japan and South Korea are favorites in the Tokyo Olympics baseball tournament after picking the top players from their domestic leagues, while the other four competing countries track down minor leaguers and veterans their heyday are dependent.

Cuba has won three of the five Olympic baseball gold medals on offer since joining the program in 1992, but failed to qualify for Tokyo after several top players defected.

That opened the field in baseball’s first appearance at the Olympics since 2008, when South Korea denied the Cubans a fourth gold.

Major League Baseball (MLB) in the United States has banned its players, including hit leaders Shohei Ohtani and Fernando Tatis Jr.

The restriction – which aims to avoid a mid-season break – has ripped off all six of the world’s elite Olympic teams, but has had a greater impact on the United States, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Israel.

Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) in Japan and the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) are on hold for the Olympics.

While the leagues’ opposing stance is not new, South Korea and Japan are coming to the Olympics with their players largely less affected by COVID-19 lockdowns.

The NPB played 120 games last year and South Korea played its entire 144 game list. The MLB held a 60-game season that was well below their typical 162. US minority leagues and the Mexican league were canceled last year.

“The NPB is one of the best leagues in the world,” Japan manager Atsunori Inaba told Reuters. “The daily experience in high-level games is sure to make the players their best.

Foreign viewers are banned due to COVID-19 concerns to ensure Japan has strong support from its homeland.

It also helps not to have to travel.

Mexico plans to train and borrow prep from boxers competing overseas in the five days leading up to their 14-hour flight to Tokyo at 3 a.m.

Familiarity with a more pitcher-friendly ball than used in the West can also help Japan, which will also benefit from their players knowing each other so well: five of their 24 players come from an NPB team alone.

Inaba’s list includes the NPB’s home run leader and some of the toughest throwers including Masahiro Tanaka, but he declined to favorite Japan as any country could compete.

South Korea has the best clubs in the KBO on average and on basis as well as stroke percentage, despite being a young pitching team.

Israel is represented in an Olympic team sport for the first time since football in 1976. His roster includes MLB free agents and even an MLB trainer.

Mexican coach Benjamin Gil is looking for big contributions from smaller league players, including pitcher Hector Velazquez and former MLB star Adrian Gonzalez, who currently plays for Gil’s Guadalajara team.

“He’s the league’s most prolific first baseman,” Gil told Reuters. “He has dispelled any doubts that he can still play.”

The roster in the US and Dominican Republic is still unclear, with potential players vacillating between MLB and the minors.

Reporting from Paresh Dave; Editing by Peter Rutherford

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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