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[NPB NOTEBOOK] Samurai Japan Pitchers Impress in a Combined Perfect Game Against Team Europe

New Samurai Japan manager Hirokazu Ibata is looking beyond the professional ranks for prospective players as he continues to put his stamp on the team.

If two recent exhibition games are any indication, new Samurai Japan manager Hirokazu Ibata appears ready to give some of the country's young baseball players a shot at playing for the national team.

Japan beat Team Europe by scores of 5-0 and 2-0 in two exhibition games earlier this month.

The nation's pitching prowess was on full display when Samurai Japan beat the European squad 2-0 on Thursday, March 7.

Collegiate lefty Yumeto Kanemaru, who is just 20, struck out four batters to kick off a six-pitcher perfect game relay over Europe in the finale of the Global Baseball Games.

Kanemaru was the game winner. He was also just one of four university players Ibata named to his squad for the two games at Kyocera Dome in Osaka.

As the starter, Kanemaru faced a total of six batters and left with a lead thanks to an unearned second-inning run.

Samurai Japan
Samurai Japan pitcher Shinya Matsuyama in action on March 7. (©SANKEI)

For Samurai Japan, the other pitchers used in the game were 23-year-old Shinya Matsuyama of the Chunichi Dragons, collegiate participant Yuto Nakamura, 23-year-old Shota Watanabe of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, Chihiro Sumida, 24, of the Saitama Seibu Lions and Atsuki Taneichi, 25, of the Chiba Lotte Marines.

A Showcase for Samurai Japan Players

Another collegiate player, center fielder Misho Nishikawa, an Aoyama Gakuin University student, made a spectacular diving catch in the seventh inning to preserve the no-hit bid. 

"I'm really excited to see what the established stars and the young prospects will do this season to make our autumn team selection difficult," Ibata was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.

Samurai Japan
Samurai Japan manager Hirokazu Ibata (©SANKEI)

Ibata, who took over as Samurai Japan manager in October 2023, wasn't the only one impressed with Japan's young players.

"He's a college pitcher," Team Europe manager Marco Mazzieri said of Kanemaru, a Kansai University student, according to MLB.com. "But look at him. His fastball tops 95 [mph], and he throws a splitter and a changeup for strikes. He is just a good pitcher." 

Samurai Japan
Samurai Japan's Misho Nishikawa hits a single in the first inning on March 7. (©SANKEI)

A Quick Look Ahead for Samurai Japan

The next step for Ibata and the senior national team will be November's Premier12 tournament. 

That tournament features the top 12 national teams in the world, according to the World Baseball Softball Confederation rankings.

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Roki Sasaki
Chiba Lotte Marines hurler Roki Sasaki fires a pitch in a spring training game against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks on March 10 at ZOZO Marine Stadium. (©SANKEI)

Sasaki Targets a Banner Season

Speaking of dominant pitchers, Marines flamethrower Roki Sasaki is hoping to have a big season as he has his sights set on playing in the major leagues.

Sasaki took to the mound on Sunday, March 10 in a preseason game against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

The 22-year-old right-hander struck out five while giving up four hits and two walks over three scoreless innings in a game that ended in a 1-1 tie after nine innings.

Sasaki is expected to take the mound when Lotte faces the Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters in their season-opening series at ZOZO Marine Stadium from March 29-31.

Many already considered Sasaki to be the best pitcher in Japan and he enters the new season as the clear No 1 following the departure of former Orix Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who signed a 12-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in December 2023.

Sasaki has made it clear he wants to go to the majors via the posting system. Whether the Marines will cooperate with that desire is another question. 

While being outstanding throughout his career, Sasaki has battled injuries.

Sasaki Showcased His Talent in 2023

In 2023, he went 7-4 in 15 games for Lotte. He finished eighth in NPB with 135 strikeouts and was one of only two pitchers with more than 100 strikeouts in less than 100 innings. The other was the Buffaloes' Shunpeita Yamashita.

Sasaki has been on the radar of just about every major league team after he pitched a perfect game in April of 2022 while tying the NPB record for total strikeouts in one game with 19.

In that game, Sasaki also set a record for consecutive strikeouts with 13.

On top of a 102-mph (164.1-kph) fastball, Sasaki also throws a forkball and curve and a slider. The forkball is considered the best off-speed pitch in his arsenal.

Koshien Stadium
Iconic Koshien Stadium in a 2004 file photo. (©SANKEI)

100th Anniversary for Koshien Stadium 

Koshien Stadium, the mecca of Japanese baseball and home of the Central League's Hanshin Tigers, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

For those who have never been, it's an absolute must-see. Similar to Fenway Park in Boston or Wrigley Field in Chicago, it is one of those sports venues that has lasted the test of time.

In a recent feature on Nippon.com, the sports editorial writer Takashi Takiguchi provides a superb profile of the venerable stadium on the outskirts of Osaka.

Koshien Stadium
The view from Koshien Stadium's outfield stands during the National High School Baseball Championship on August 20, 1998. (©SANKEI)

Koshien Stadium
Since 1924, baseball fans have visited Koshien Stadium to watch games. On November 2, 2023, the Hanshin Tigers' Seishiro Sakamoto slaps a two-run triple in the eighth inning in Game 5 of the Japan Series. (ⒸSANKEI)

Koshien Stadium
An aerial view of Koshien Stadium in September 2023. (©SANKEI)

The Story Behind Koshien Stadium's Origin

Among the fascinating facts is the story behind the stadium's origin.

As described by Takiguchi, the stadium was built by the Hanshin Electric Railway company. 

The company's managing director, Seizo Misaki, wanted a venue that would rival the world-famous Yankee Stadium. 

One of his employees in the United States was sent to New York to use Yankee Stadium as a basis for his design. But Yankee Stadium was being rebuilt so the design for Koshien was based on New York's Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants.

Another remarkable fact about Koshien: Construction of the stadium began on March 11, 1924, and the grand opening took place a mere four months later on August 1.  

Trevor Bauer pitches for the Asian Breeze against a team of Los Angeles Dodgers minor leaguers on March 10 in Glendale, Arizona. (©SANKEI)

Bauer Continues Attempt to Return to MLB

Trevor Bauer, who spent last season with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars, pitched three strong innings against minor leaguers of his former team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, on Sunday, March 10.

Bauer was on the mound in Glendale, Arizona, for a team called the Asian Breeze, an independent team that plays exhibition games against minor leaguers.

The appearance was further evidence of just how eager Bauer is to get back to the major leagues after he was suspended for a record 194 games for violating MLB's domestic violence and sexual assault policy.

In the game, the 2020 National League Cy Young Award winner struck out four and allowed just two hits. His fastball topped out at 99 mph (159.3 kph).

Bauer spoke to reporters after the game.

"I should have the opportunity to sign with a big league team," Bauer said. "I'm just asking for the league minimum, so it's not a money thing. I've served my suspension twice over."

He added, "I've been cleared of everything in the legal system. If you think about it logically, there's really no reason I shouldn't have a job."

Bauer may see it that way but it's doubtful any MLB team is going to want to take the chance with the potential PR disaster that would come with signing Bauer.

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Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles on SportsLook.

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