The fall was as stunning as it was quick.
Japan, the defending World Baseball Classic champion, was humbled in the Beijing heat as Senichi Hoshino’s men lost their final three games and stumbled to a fourth-place finish in the Olympic baseball tournament.
This was supposed to be the tournament in which Japan reaffirmed its place atop the baseball world by capturing the gold medal. Instead, “Hoshino Japan” returned home with no medals and a host of unanswered questions with the next edition of the WBC looming.
The best Japanese baseball had to offer was beaten once by a strong Cuban team, twice by an upstart South Korean squad, which went on to win the gold medal, and perhaps most troubling of all, twice by a group of U.S. minor leaguers.
Trouble seemed to be in the air on Aug. 9, when, instead of a triumphant sendoff, the team headed to Beijing on the heels of an resounding 11-2 loss to a select side of Central League players at Tokyo Dome.
Almost to a man they vowed they would be ready once the “real thing” got started.
Inconsistency on the mound, lackluster defense and troubles at the plate were the culprits in that game, and the same problems plagued them in Beijing.
There were also a few questionable calls from the dugout, most glaringly when it came to pitching.
Against the Koreans, Hoshino left Tsuyoshi Wada in the game a bit too long, despite signs that the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks starter was beginning to fade, which contributed to the game-tying two-run homer he gave up in the the seventh inning of the 5-3 loss.
In the semifinal round, Hoshino stuck with reliever Hitoki Iwase, despite the pitcher’s dismal showings against the Koreans and the U.S. in the first round, in a 2-2 contest in the eighth. Like clockwork the decision came back to haunt the Japanese squad as Iwase surrendered three crucial runs — two earned — in a game South Korea won 6-2.
In short, Hoshino took a talented squad of players to Beijing, was doomed by a few bad decisions, and failed to get the most out of his team. The results are, in the manager’s own words, “what you see.”
That’s not to say Hoshino isn’t the right man to continue leading the national team, nor should he bear all the blame from the Olympic failure. Decision-making aside, Hoshino wasn’t in left field dropping balls nor on the mound or at the plate.
The Japan team simply went to Beijing and didn’t perform. Talent pushed them past the field’s weaker teams and into the semifinals, but they failed to put together a complete game for nine-innings against stronger competition.
The one good thing that can be taken from the experience is that it gives Japanese baseball a chance to sit back and take a good look at the whole program, decide if Hoshino is the man for the job and go back to square one if need be.
There won’t be another chance in the Olympics until at least 2016, but next year’s WBC will offer a chance at redemption.
During the Olympics, Hoshino made a few comments saying that he didn’t think international baseball would be quite as hard as it was. It’ll only get harder during the WBC when most of the teams, including Japan and especially the U.S., will be bolstered by the addition of major league players.
There’s no shame in losing to the Cubans, and the South Koreans proved to be a more than formidable team during the Olympics. But a pair of losses to a team comprised of minor leaguers dealt a mighty blow to the Japanese baseball mystique.
Now its up the men in charge to figure out what went wrong and get to work fixing it in time to defend the WBC title.