Leader Aoki proves worth in Samurai Japan’s opening win


Norichika Aoki definitely made a big contribution to Japan’s 11-6 win over Cuban in their World Baseball Classic Pool B opener at Tokyo Dome on Tuesday night.

The 35-year-old veteran had a well-hit double and scored a run in the first inning, while he also made a couple of great catches in center field in the third and fourth innings.

The Samurai Japan offense came through, but Aoki agreed that solid defensive plays helped the team maintain its momentum.

“Yeah, we had some big plays when we needed them,” Aoki said after the game.

To be fair, he wasn’t Japan’s biggest hero of the night. But away from the spotlight, he displayed a great deal of leadership to his teammates as they faced the pressure of the first game of a global tournament.

“I talked to our guys during our meeting (before the game),” Aoki said. “I told them that I have this motto, ‘Prove yourself right’ — Prove what you have done is correct. I told our guys this, told them to play with confidence.”

Baseball is often regarded as a psychological game. Aoki believes that playing with confidence gives you a better chance to win.

“I’ve been through so many different things in my career, and I’ve had some tough times as well,” said Aoki, a three-time Central League batting champion for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows who has played for four different major league clubs through the 2016 season. “So basically I just told them what I’ve done. But it’s important to play, trying to prove what you have done is right, and told them, ‘Let’s play with confidence.’ And they did play with confidence and it worked to get us this positive result.”

Aoki, the only major leaguer on the current Samurai Japan roster, revealed that he didn’t come up with his prove-yourself-right phrase on his own. He borrowed it from Robinson Cano, his ex-teammate on the Seattle Mariners, because the infielder often used it to encourage his teammates.

“I thought it was really a great phrase to use,” said Aoki, who played for the Mariners last year and moved to the Houston Astros this offseason. “When I was sent down to the minors, the phrase really helped me mentally.”

Bittersweet souvenir: Remember Jeffrey Maier? The boy who became a hero when he caught a flyball hit by Derek Jeter that was probably not going over the fence in right field, extending his arm with a glove on, in the eighth inning of Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series against Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium? With that grab, Maier turned a potential extra-base hit into a game-tying solo homer for the eventual World Series champion Yankees.

There was a very similar case during Tuesday’s Japan-Cuba game. An apparent Japanese junior high school boy grabbed a ball smacked by Japan’s Tetsuto Yamada in the fourth inning just as Maier did. And after a video review by the officials — which didn’t exist when Maier caught the Jeter ball — it was ruled a double (although Japan still scored a run on it).

But, because it could have been a two-run home run, the treatment the Japanese boy received was more like the abuse meted out to legendary Cubs fan Steve Bartman, who was criticized for catching a flyball that flew into a spot between the stands and left-field foul territory at Wrigley Field during Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series between Chicago and the Florida Marlins. The latter went on to win the series and the World Series over the Yankees.

According to reports, the Japanese boy was verbally cautioned by a security person, and stayed in his seat for the remainder of the contest.

Hopefully, the boy did not see any of the harsh comments on social networks, which suggested he should have been kicked out of the stadium right away, or that he should not come back to the stadium any more.

Fortunately, his catch did not affect the game’s result in the end. And Yamada, who hit over .300, 30 homers and 30 stolen bases in the last two seasons, did not criticize the boy at all.

“That’s part of baseball,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if it was gone. But I’d like to lift more weights and hit the ball further going forward.”

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