Rising NPB stars making strong case for spots on Japan’s Olympic team

Wednesday marked three months until the start of the Tokyo Olympic baseball tournament — assuming the coronavirus doesn’t blow another fastball past the organizers, who, if we’re being honest, are probably sitting on a 2-2 count at best.

Let’s assume, however, the games will take place.

The original plan for Samurai Japan was to use the Premier12 in November 2019 as a final testing ground and head into the Olympics the following summer. That was before the postponement of the games in March 2020.

It’s now been over a year since Samurai Japan’s victory over South Korea in the Premier12 final. The extra time has given manager Atsunori Inaba more things to think about as he goes about building a squad that can capture Japan’s first Olympic gold medal in baseball.

A lot can change in a year. While there are certainly players who were locks to make the team at the end of 2019 and still are — such as the Hiroshima Carp’s Seiya Suzuki and the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Tetsuto Yamada — the delay gave others a chance to state their case.

With the games approaching quickly, the early stages of the 2021 NPB season is a final audition of sorts for those hoping to play their way onto the team.

If there’s one player who has probably done enough already, it’s the Swallows’ 21-year-old first baseman Munetaka Murakami.

”I really want to play in the Olympics and I want to do what I can to make it happen,” Murakami told Sports Hochi earlier in the season.

Murakami wasn’t on the Premier12 roster, but he’s making it hard for Inaba to keep him off the squad for the Summer Games. Murakami made the Central League Best Nine team in 2020 and is off to a good start this season. Through Thursday’s games, he was tied with Yamada atop NPB with 10 home runs. He was also leading NPB with an on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of 1.138 — Yamada and Suzuki were the only other players above 1.000 — and a 208 weighted runs created plus (wRC+).

“He is really helping carry the team,” Inaba told Tokyo Sports on April 15.

Across the diamond, Yomiuri Giants third baseman Kazuma Okamoto is also making a case. Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda, who got many of the starts at third during the Premier12, is a sparkplug who brings energy and veteran leadership, but Okamoto led the CL with 31 home runs in 118 games last season. Power has been one of the areas Inaba has focused on as manager and Okamoto, who also hit 31 homers in 2019, might have enough to get past the Hawks infielder for the role.

”He’s in really good shape,” Inaba told Sports Hochi earlier this month. “I want to see how he continues to improve.”

When Japan won the Premier12, Yokohama DeNA BayStars pitcher Yasuaki Yamasaki recorded the final out and was probably penciled in as the Olympic closer. Yamasaki, however, fell apart in 2020 and isn’t even currently in the closer’s role for the BayStars. If Inaba moves away from Yamasaki being on the roster entirely, it could open the door for an extremely new face in Carp rookie Ryoji Kuribayashi.

Kuribayahsi wasn’t even in NPB, let alone on the Samurai Japan roster, in 2019. He has made his presence felt this year, beginning his career with 12 straight scoreless appearances — a run that’s one shy of the NPB record set by the Hawks’ Hiroshi Kaino and, as of Thursday, was still ongoing.

The jump to the pros hasn’t overwhelmed Kuribayashi yet and he recorded eight saves and struck out 18 in his first 12 innings. He allowed just a pair of hits and walked four. Closing for the national team is probably too much, too fast, but a spot on the roster shouldn’t be out of the question.

In addition to Yamasaki’s struggles, Kaino isn’t healthy and Rei Takahashi, another Hawks pitcher, has been up and down. The situation is ripe for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ Yuki Matsui (who had 19 strikeouts and didn’t allow a run in his first 13 appearances this season), or another veteran pitcher to find their way into the Japan bullpen.

Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka wasn’t in NPB in 2020 either. Unlike some other players, however, the early part of the season is more warmup than audition for Tanaka. Had the Olympics taken place as planned last year, Tanaka, who was pitching for the New York Yankees, would not have been included since MLB isn’t releasing players on active rosters for the games. His high-profile return to the Eagles earlier this year, however, placed him firmly back in the national team’s plans.

Orix Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto was in the bullpen for the Premier12, but could have a bigger role at the games — especially with the Hawks’ Kodai Senga injured. Yamamoto threw a complete game in a scoreless tie against the Eagles on Wednesday and is leading NPB with a 1.39 ERA and 45 innings pitched in six starts.

There are other candidates playing well — with the Hawks’ versatile Ryoya Kurihara and national team veteran Kensuke Kondo among them — as the Olympics draw near.

The year since the Premier12 has seen a few Japan mainstays take a step back, while the injury bug bit others. On the other hand, the extra time has given some a chance to play well enough to make Inaba start to think twice as his builds his roster for the delayed games.

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