An all-star team (of sorts) from Major League Baseball went to Japan to play a friendly series, and promptly got manhandled.
The MLB All-Stars lost the best-of-five series to Samurai Japan, managing to save face by winning the final two games after the series had already been decided. They were also no-hit in the clinching game Saturday as four Japanese pitchers combined to stifle the major leaguers in a 4-0 win.
The MLB-Japan All-Star Series had been on hiatus for eight years after the advent of the World Baseball Classic. The MLB players had previously dominated the biennial series against a team of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) all-stars, winning nine of the 10 series from 1986-2006.
But when the series returned to Japan this year, there was a different feel. Instead of fielding an NPB all-star team as it had in the past, the Japanese put up Samurai Japan, the national team that represents the country in international competitions.
Despite not having stars currently playing in the U.S. – including Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish and Norichika Aoki – the Japanese team put together a great performance with a roster full of young and hungry professionals. Even in defeat in the series finale Tuesday night in Sapporo, there was much promise on display.
Shohei Otani, who just turned 20 in July, dazzled in his four-inning outing (a pitch count of 80 was imposed on both teams’ pitchers). He regularly topped out in the high 90s on the radar gun and recorded seven strikeouts. Otani, a rare two-way player who’s an outfielder in games he doesn’t pitch, hit .274 with 10 home runs and 31 RBIs in his second year with the Nippon Ham Fighters.
Matt Shoemaker, the MLB starter who earned the victory in the series finale, was duly impressed.
“What is he, 20?” Shoemaker said after the game. “He’s that young and he has that kind of an arm. And I heard he also plays in the field during the season. He’s a really special player – that’s really impressive.
“It’s crazy to be able to have be a good pitcher and on top of that be able to produce at the plate. It’s not very common.”
The team that’s visiting Japan doesn’t necessarily comprise the very best players MLB has to offer, but it’s no slouch, either. Star players such as the Angels’ Shoemaker, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, Rays outfielder Evan Longoria, and AL batting champ Jose Altuve of the Astros are among the headliners. Two Japanese pitchers – the Cubs’ Tsuyoshi Wada and Mariners’ Hisashi Iwakuma – are also on the squad.
To be sure, the MLB All-Star team is in Japan for much more than friendly competition. Besides playing the five-game series and two other exhibitions, the players are also acting as goodwill ambassadors to strengthen the relationship between the two nations and professional leagues.
John Gibson, an American journalist who’s covered Japanese baseball since the mid-1990s, says the series won’t ever be the same as it was before it went on the eight-year hiatus when MLB teams – no matter whom it sent – utterly dominated.
“The truth is, the landscape has changed,” Gibson wrote in his One World Sports blog. “The MLB stars are using the same approach, but Japan is using the stage to get its national team valuable experience against some of the best talent in the world.
“And Japan has obviously reached a level at which talent alone isn’t enough to win (for MLB). It wasn’t enough to even get them a hit on Saturday. It’s not that the Japanese players are more talented, it’s more about preparation and organization.”
The Japanese approach has been tremendously successful in the one event that truly pits the best talent in the world under their respective national banners. Japan won the first two World Baseball Classic tournaments (in 2006 and 2009) before losing in the semifinals and finishing third in 2013.
While MLB still possesses most of the best baseball talent in the world, the rest of the professional leagues are catching up. And what’s not in dispute is that the U.S. – the birthplace of baseball – is nowhere near being the top country in terms of producing talent. Despite hosting all the WBC tournaments, Team USA’s best finish was fourth in 2009.
The San Francisco Giants might have won the “World Series” but the rise of competition worldwide is making the series winner’s claim as the “world champion” more dubious by the year. Perhaps someday there will be a true World Series matching the best professional teams from not just North America, but around the globe.