Samurai Japan took second place in its first appearance at the Asian Baseball Championship. "Our mistakes cost us the game. Well, that and the fact that the opposition's defense was better than our offense. It's a basic principle in baseball that the team with fewer mistakes wins," said Junichiro Kishi (Meitoku Gijuku High School) in a quiet voice after the final game. The coach's statement holds the key to ensuring 1st place for the Samurai Japan 18U team.
First off, the team's ability to adjust to the different rules of international competition with only 6 days' practice after the Koshien national summer high school championships was astonishing. The kids started using wooden bats on the first day, and they didn't break one. What's more the different bats certainly didn't get in the way of the team's hitting during the championships. The 4th batter in the lineup, Kazuma Okamoto (Chiben Gakuen High School), who had earlier said that he didn't have any problem at all with having to switch to wooden bats, batted 0.474 and hit 5 RBIs. The 3rd batter on the roster, Yukinori Kishida (Hotoku Gakuen High School), and 5th batter, Kazuya Katsuki (Osaka Toin High School), batted 0.411.
The reason they couldn't take 1st place was their inability to remain calm under pressure. Coach Takahashi assumed the team would be facing tough competition during finals and worked to achieve a good rhythm in the defense, put points on the board by taking full advantage of squeeze plays and other tactics, and by holding their opponent's offense in check. In the semi finals and finals, however, shortstop Takayuki Yasuda (Meitoku Gijuku High School) and Yuki Yoshida (Riseisha High School) made mistakes at important points. "I was super nervous," said Yoshida with a look of honest regret at having been unable to shine at the big moment.
During the games against Korea and Taiwan, the players faced fierce competition that required not only their standard high-level of stamina and skill, but also the ability to perform under extreme conditions. Naoto Wakimoto (Takasaki University of Health and Welfare Affiliated High School) and Takayuki Yasuda both said that the Asian Championships put more pressure on them than the Koshien Tournament did, which adds to the difficulty of bringing a world cup victory home. While pressure is certainly nothing new at the international level, preparing for it on a regular basis and maintaining calm during games will be a key factor in the future.
Meanwhile, pitchers delivered as expected by only allowing two hits in three games in the preliminary league. Two of the games were pitched perfectly, and Shunya Morita (Toyama Shogyo High School) held the Korean Team to two runs in his eight and 1/3 innings at the mound. They showed Asia that Samurai Japan pitchers were a force to be reckoned with.
I dare say that adjusting to the strike zone for international games is also a key as we saw that Japan's ace Mitsunari Takahashi (Maebashi Ikuei High School) had a hard time controlling the ball in spite of his strength as a pitcher.
Looking at the other teams, first-place winner Korea put in an impressive performance. The team's starting pitcher Eom Sangbaek was throwing 140 km/h pitches. He made it clear that he was concentrating on controlling the ball, which means he was careful not to leave any openings to the Japanese batters.
Third-place Taiwan had decisive hitting and clear skill both in the infield and outfield. China had many smaller players, but they were all quick and agile. The Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh all fielded players with physical prowess that was impressive to see. Baseball in Asia still has a way to go, but what I saw this year gave me the distinct impression that it has great potential.
In summer 2015, the 18U World Cup will be hosted for the first time at Koshien, the Mecca of high school baseball players in Japan. We all hope that next generation of Samurai Japan players will use the lessons learned in Thailand to increase their chances of taking 1st place.
XXXVI BFA Asian 18U Baseball Championship Team Members
XXXVI BFA Asian 18U Baseball Championship