Japan successful no matter the circumstances
Semifinals tuneup shows deep talent on defending Classic champs' roster
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Even when the game doesn't count, the baseball team from Japan looks very impressive.
As exhibition baseball games go, this one appeared to be at the head of the class in terms of weight, heft, significance.
Here were two defending champions -- the San Francisco Giants, winners of two of the last three World Series, and Team Japan, winner of the two previous World Baseball Classics.
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The Japanese defeated the Giants, 6-3. Giants manager Bruce Bochy was comprehensive in his praise of the Japanese performance.
"They played well, they swung the bats well, they pitched well, they played a good ballgame today," Bochy said. "They certainly outplayed us.
"Their pitching was sharp. We only mustered five hits today, but more than that, we didn't get very many good swings off. We were a little passive with the bats. Sure, these are guys that we haven't faced, but you know what? We still have to go in there and get aggressive and for some reason we weren't today.
"But give [Team Japan] credit, though. They pitched well, they played well. They threw strikes, they had good command, they had good secondary pitches, they looked sharp."
The Japanese, who have advanced through two rounds of the 2013 Classic, were preparing for the Classic semifinals, which begin Sunday in San Francisco. The Giants were taking a day off from Cactus League play, but were still preparing for the 2013 regular season.
There was nothing specifically at stake, but this was still a competition.
"In any generation, when you play a game, it's a game," said Koji Yamamoto, manager of Team Japan, through an interpreter. "We all look forward to winning."
At the end of the afternoon, all of the winning had been done by the Japanese. Although the Giants presented some of their own mitigating circumstances, the other half of the game was yet another demonstration of just how advanced Japanese baseball is.
The Giants did not use any frontline pitchers. Yusmeiro Petit started, worked four innings giving up four runs and took the loss. Bochy started five regulars at the top of his lineup, but four of them were taken out after two plate appearances. The Japanese started their ace, Masahiro Tanaka, but pitched him only two innings and substituted frequently as the game progressed. If Japan reaches the final of the Classic, Tanaka is expected to start that game.
The Japanese teams that won World Baseball Classics in 2006 and 2009 included prominent Major League players. This Japanese club has no players with current Major League connections and only one who previously played in the Majors, infielder Kazuo Matsui. And yet, so far, the Japanese have been as successful as ever in the Classic.
"I knew about the situation from the get-go," Yamamoto said. "We knew when I was first asked to become the manager that we would probably have no Major League ballplayers. So that was something that I had to start off with, from my standpoint.
"But going into today, you see these guys growing with more confidence and that makes me feel mentally strong. Although it's not easy, this is reality. So I think it's motivating for these kids right now, because a lot of these guys have no experience here, but they have a lot of interest. So hopefully this will be a good start for these guys to know what Major League [Baseball] is all about. If they can compete here, that would be another challenge for them."
There were more than 100 Japanese reporters covering this game, an indication of how important the performance of Team Japan is for its home country. Yamamoto was kind enough to set aside time for a much smaller group -- four American reporters. Among the topics was the obvious pressure on his team as it goes for a third straight Classic championship.
"It's not easy to win back to back," Yamamoto said. "We're going for our third straight right now and there's a lot of pressure on our back. Our goal was to come here to the United States. Once we get here, anything can happen. That's how I look at it."
Yamamoto was also asked if he would like at some point to see "a true World Series," between, for instance, championship teams from the Major Leagues and Japan.
"To be honest with you, I have no room in my mind to be thinking about stuff like that," Yamamoto said with a smile.
It is true, Team Japan has more than enough to do as it seeks a third straight World Baseball Classic title. The Japanese will play another exhibition Friday, this one against the Chicago Cubs, before traveling to the semifinals.
The San Francisco team that Team Japan defeated was not the absolute best that the Giants can put on the field. That doesn't detract from the quality that the Japanese displayed at Scottsdale Stadium. By now, in international competition, there is no reason to expect anything less than very good baseball from Team Japan.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.