No matter how they fare in league action, Senichi Hoshino has kept his faith in the players he believes can propel Japan to Olympic glory.
Taking an elusive Olympic baseball gold medal back to Japan is the mission assigned to a man known for his passion in the field and dugout as a player and manager. Hoshino was well aware of it from day one as national team skipper.
“I only need the gold — not any other color,” Hoshino said when he was introduced in January 2007 as national manager, looking ahead to what could be the final Olympic baseball tournament.
He soon embarked on a project to accomplish the task, assembling a squad that breezed through a regional Olympic qualifying tournament over fellow Asian powerhouses South Korea and Taiwan.
The 61-year-old has also done a lot of traveling, vigorously engaging in scouting activities in an effort to prevent his squad from falling into the same rut as the Japan team that settled for a bronze medal four years ago in Athens.
The lack of proper study of its opponents was cited by many for the disappointing finish in Athens, where Japan’s first-ever all-professional Olympic squad unexpectedly lost twice to Australia.
Hoshino has been spotted at many international tournaments and even made headlines when he stumbled in the stadium stands into an iron fence on July 9 and suffered broken ribs during a game involving gold-medal favorite Cuba in a tournament in the Netherlands.
Unfazed by the accident, Hoshino announced his 24-man roster for the competition in Beijing a week later and reiterated his pledge to “go for the medal that shines brightest” with the lineup of players he dubbed “the best in Japan at this point.”
In a controversial choice, Yomiuri Giants right-hander Koji Uehara made the roster despite a significant dip in form since playing a pivotal role as the closer in the Asian qualifiers.
Uehara has been having one of the worst seasons of his career, losing a spot in the top team in the spring and still struggling to regain his form after his return from the farm team.
A key member of Japan’s Athens Olympic team and the country’s triumphant campaign in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, Uehara retained his place in the national squad on the back of his ample international experience as well as leadership qualities.
“I just want to live up to the expectations of the coaching staff who chose me despite my dismal performances. I know I have to do something to break out of this slump,” Uehara told a press conference after being named in the Olympic team.
The Beijing Olympics will provide the 33-year-old with a timely opportunity to impress the major league scouts visiting the Wukesong Baseball Field ahead of the probable start of free-agent talks this fall.
Chiba Lotte Marines lefty Yoshihisa Naruse and the Saitama Seibu Lions’ Hideaki Wakui, two of the Pacific League’s best pitchers in 2007, are also among the players who helped Japan win an Olympic berth last fall but have since seen their form go down.
On the bright side, Nippon Ham right-hander Yu Darvish is having another superb season and two newly called-up Seibu players, Hiroyuki Nakajima and Takahiko G.G. Sato, are expected to provide some punch to the offense.
Darvish, who will turn 22 on Aug. 16 during the Olympic competition, has been solid on the mound since the beginning of the season. He is considered the No. 1 starter in Japan’s rotation and will likely start key games in Beijing.
Darvish, who has an Iranian father and a Japanese mother, chose Japanese nationality last year and it removed legal obstacles for him to play for the national team at the Olympics.
“The Olympics is nothing to do with my decision. I grew up in Japan. I’ve decided to do this from the beginning,” he said. “I’ve been pitching against good hitters in Japan and I don’t think the hitters I face in Beijing are better than Japanese hitters.”
In a move aimed at adding to the depth in his lineup, Hoshino turned to shortstop Nakajima and outfielder Sato, who have led the powerful offense of the Pacific League-leading Lions all season.
“We’re pleased to have picked some new players who have produced results this year. I want to tell them to go aggressive on the field,” Hoshino said, referring to the slugging duo.
Hanshin right-hander Kyuji Fujikawa and Chunichi left-hander Hitoki Iwase are the main men in Japan’s vaunted bullpen.
Following its opener against three-time gold medal winner Cuba, Japan takes on Taiwan, the Netherlands, South Korea, Canada, China and the United States in the preliminary round.
Hoshino and his coaching staff are hoping to see a semifinal spot within Japan’s grasp after its first four games.
“A victory over gold medal favorite Cuba will help us pick up momentum. We must hit top gear from our very first game. I expect every game to be close in our campaign,” Hoshino said.
Hoshino hopes that both Japan and the U.S. team, made up largely of Triple-A minor league pros, will meet in the Aug. 23 final for a finale between countries with a long tradition of baseball as their national pastime.
Baseball officials around the world are lobbying hard for the International Olympic Committee to reinstate the sport in its program after voting in 2005 to drop it from the 2012 London Games.
Hoshino said he is ready to let the game do the talking.
“I know it could be the final Olympic baseball competition, so I’ll try my best to let people around the world rediscover the excitement of the game,” he said.
Since baseball became an official medal sport in 1992, Japan has won a silver and two bronzes with one fourth-place finish. The country finished first in 1984 and second in 1988, when baseball was a demonstration event both times.