For manager Atsunori Inaba and Samurai Japan, it’s full steam ahead for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. And the first stop on what Japan hopes is the road to a gold medal comes in November, when Inaba makes his debut at the inaugural Asia Professional Baseball Championship 2017.
Inaba, who was named Samurai Japan manager in July, will guide the team against South Korea and Taiwan at the event, which is scheduled for Nov. 16-19 at Tokyo Dome.
“We are going to play the way we would play at the 2020 Olympics in this tournament,” Inaba said during a news conference on Monday. “Except for the overage players, we will use players who have played three years as professionals or are 24 years or younger. I believe some of them will be in the national team for the 2020 Olympics and I will continue to watch them closely.”
When asked about the possibility of bringing in 24-year-old Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters star Shohei Otani, Inaba kept the door open.
“He’s one of our core players, no matter the age group,” Inaba said. “There’s a chance we might be able to bring him in.”
The tournament will open with a matchup between Japan and South Korea on Nov. 16. The Koreans will face Taiwan the next night, with Japan taking on the Taiwanese on Nov. 18. The top two teams will meet in the final on Nov. 19.
“One other thing I want to see is how good our Asian rivals will be,” Inaba said. “Japan will be competing as the (Olympic) hosts, but Korea and Taiwan will have to qualify. So I think they will take this tournament seriously. So it will mean a lot for us if we can beat them.”
While Tokyo Dome will serve as the backdrop for the inaugural tournament, Japan isn’t necessarily a permanent host.
“We are considering having this tournament in Korea and Taiwan going forward and are talking with KBO (Korea Baseball Organization) and CPBL (Chinese Professional Baseball League) about the possibility,” said Japan Baseball secretary general Atsushi Ihara.
Samurai Japan also revealed Inaba’s first coaching staff. He’ll be joined in the dugout by his former Fighters teammates Makoto Kaneko and Yoshinori Tateyama. Kaneko, currently a hitting coach for the Fighters, will serve as head coach, while Tateyama, a former major leaguer and current TV analyst, will be Japan’s pitching coach.
Also on the staff are Hirokazu Ibata, a coach for the Yomiuri Giants who will serve as an infield, fielding and baserunning coach; Masaji Shimizu, who is currently coaching with the Chiba Lotte Marines, will work with the outfielders; and Yoshinori Murata, a Giants coach, who will serve as battery coach. Murata was a member of Japan’s coaching staff for the 2017 World Baseball Classic under former manager Hiroki Kokubo earlier this year.
“The first thing I told them was that we are shooting for a gold medal at the Olympics,” Inaba said. “Each coach has a wealth of international experience.”
Inaba said he had full faith in the ability of his coaches.
“The manager has the right to make the final decisions, but each coach has his own perspective,” he said. “So we are going to gather all their opinions in order to make our team better.
“Some might say we have filled this staff with friends, but this is a staff that can be frank with each other and express what they feel is right. We want to be doing what we need to in order to ultimately win the gold medal (at the Olympics).”
Samurai Japan officials likely hold a similar view of their new manager.
“It will be his first series to manage,” Ihara said. “We hope the new Samurai Japan top team will have competitive games in the tournament to wrap up this year’s baseball calendar.”
Staff Writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.