Samurai Japan is determined to recapture the title at next spring’s World Baseball Classic. But the national team will have to endure a tougher challenge to accomplish than goal than before as other countries have now gotten more eager to win as well.
Mexico and the Netherlands, who flew from their countries to play against Japan for an exhibition series dubbed the 2016 Samurai Japan Challenge at Tokyo Dome this week, are displaying serious attitudes, trying to take advantage of the occasion to develop their teams leading up to the WBC just like Japan.
“Any game we play, we have to take it seriously because it’s for our country,” Mexico manager Edgar Gonzalez said before Friday’s game against Japan. “It’s something for representing the whole country, I think my responsibility as manager — kantoku — is to be take it seriously, because the whole country doesn’t want to see (its players) just go and do it, (but) you want to see them win.”
Gonzalez, who played for the Yomiuri Giants in 2010 and 2012, said that the exhibition series would be aired on ESPN in Mexico, and that Mexicans would be quite interested in the country’s games in March for the WBC.
Team Mexico had a closed-door practice on Tuesday, which was unprecedented for the squad. But it is an indication of its seriousness.
“I don’t think so,” said Gonzalez, who took the helm last December, when asked if the team had done it before his tenure. “But it’s part of what I thought would be important for us to have some plays that are important against this team (Japan).”
Reportedly, Yasiel Puig, who has a Mexican passport, could play for Mexico at the upcoming WBC. But Gonzalez said that his team would have “a lot” of players that are playing in the major leagues, not just Puig.
Adrian Gonzalez, younger brother of Edgar and the Los Angeles Dodgers cleanup hitter, was with the team though he wasn’t registered as a player for Samurai Challenge. But he said he plans to play for Mexico in the 2017 WBC.
“It’s great, I love it,” said Adrian, who played for the national squad in the previous three Classics. “For me, to wear the jersey is an incredible feeling.”
Sergio Romo, a relief pitcher for Mexico and the San Francisco Giants, said that it gives you pride and brings more passion when you represent your country.
“Just like the Japanese players we saw yesterday, they are very passionate,” Romo said before the second of the two-game series on Friday. “So there’s a lot of pride to just represent our country, (to show) our style of game and show the world who we are. It really, really means a lot.”
Romo said that during a single game on Thursday, when Mexico topped Japan 7-3, the team displayed its enthusiasm on the diamond.
“Last night, the way we played here, and the way they played against us, I think that’s an indication of the seriousness of baseball, of what we are trying to accomplish,” he said. “I think we came over here to show who we are. These guys (on the Mexican team) are good, these guys do a lot of small things. (It makes people think), ‘Oh, they are dangerous.’
“I think the Samurai Challenge, it’s just an indication of how good Mexico is going to be.”
Hensley Meulens, skipper for the Netherlands, said that baseball has globalized so much, adding that nations that weren’t previously known as competitive teams, such as Brazil and Spain, surprised the world in the past WBC.
“There’s only 16 countries participating,” said Meulens, who used to play in NPB and now serves as a coach for San Francisco. “But there’s a lot of them trying to get there. And there’s some good ones not getting there like Panama (Brazil stunned with a win over Panama in the qualifying tournament for the 2013 WBC). It’s good for the game.”
Referring to baseball’s return to the Olympics in 2020 for the Tokyo Games, Meulens noted that it’s a big stage for the sport, but said that the WBC is equally big as “there’s no competition in the world that hosts the best players.”
Though it looks that it’s getting tougher to advance further and win the championship in the WBC, Meulens said that “it’s always hard.”
“I need my best players to play,” he said. “And we’re fortunate that our guys want to play and we can compete at this high level.”