Major league stars put Japan on the path to reclaiming the WBC crown.

Roki Sasaki. (Essonne News)

After back-to-back World Baseball Classic semifinals, a strong field of MLB regulars put Samurai Japan in a strong position to claim their third tournament title in March and first since 2009.

Two-way star Shohei Ohtani, 2021 American League MVP, veteran starting pitcher Yu Darvish and outfielder Seiya Suzuki all signed after two tournaments, which most Japanese MLB players declined to participate in.

When the Pool B matches kick off at the Tokyo Dome on March 9, these three players will form a core group of veterans surrounded by breathtaking young talent currently playing in Japanese professional baseball.

Samurai Japan is expected to include 22-year-old Triple Crown winner Munetaka Murakami, 21-year-old pitcher Roki Sasaki, who scored a perfect game, and 24-year-old right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto, winner of the last two awards. Sawamura, who will be Japan’s most impressive starting pitcher.

Munetaka Murakami. (Essonne News)

This trio, along with a support team of domestic veterans, makes Japan a favorite for the semi-finals. By relieving the national contingent, the MLB stars will give Japan’s Samurai a boost that will make them tough to beat.

This will be Darvish and Suzuki’s second appearance in the WBC and the first for Ohtani, who sat out the competition in 2017 due to an ankle injury. The trio’s participation reflects growing interest in the spring tournament among MLB regulars in other countries.

Defending champion USA already has a star-studded roster, led by outfielders Mike Trout of the Ohtani Los Angeles Angels and Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers, including teammate Clayton Kershaw , a three-time Cy Young Award winner, has also signed.

Although top MLB players tend to want to play for their respective countries, the response from Japanese stars abroad has likely been enhanced by the appointment of Samurai Japan’s most qualified manager since 2009.

Hideki Kuriyama won two Pacific League championships and a Japan Series during his 10 years as Nippon Ham Fighters manager from 2012 to 2021. During that time, he orchestrated the development of Ohtani, who is perhaps to be the most talented baseball player on the planet.

Mike Trout. (Essonne News)

In 2006 and 2009, MLB stars, led by Ichiro Suzuki, played an important role in Japan’s first two championships. But the overseas contingent stayed away from the 2013 and 2017 squads, with the connection to Ohtani most likely playing a big role in Kuriyama’s hiring.

Since the start of the WBC in 2006, selecting managers has been difficult. The first two titles were won by veteran managers who spent time away from their clubs, something neither was prepared to do in 2013.

The MLB stars stayed away when long-retired Koji Yamamoto, whose only league title dates back to 1991, was signed. Japan changed their minds in 2017, with Hiroki Kokubo, who had never been a coach before being signed by the Samurai of Japan, and outfielder Norichika Aoki, the sole MLB representative.

Shohei Ohtani. (Essonne News)

Hiring Kuriyama is a sign to the players that Japan is determined to succeed and has a plan, something that hasn’t been evident in the past two tournaments.

It would never have been taken for granted for Ohtani, Darvish and Suzuki to commit to 2023 and sacrifice time normally spent on off-season recovery and spring training with their clubs.

A player’s in-season workload can’t compare to that of Ohtani, the first MLB player since the start of the World Series era in 1903 to qualify for both the hitter and ERA pitcher in the same season. Yet even with the demands of a two-way player, Ohtani was the first to commit.

Darvish is playing despite pitching through to the playoffs last year with the San Diego Padres, while Suzuki is giving up his first full MLB preseason with his Chicago Cubs teammates after that of last year was interrupted by the owners’ lockout.

With Kuriyama in charge, Japan called on their MLB stars, and for the first time since 2009 they lined up to play, and that should be something.

Next year’s tournament, originally scheduled for 2021, will grow from 16 to 20 teams, with four pools of five teams in the first round. Japan’s Pool B includes China, Australia, South Korea and the Czech Republic.

The top two teams from each round robin pool advance to the knockout stage, which begins with the quarter-finals. The two qualifiers from Pool B will each face the two qualifiers from Taiwan-based Pool A, with the winners advancing to the semi-finals on March 19-20 in Miami.

Photo taken on July 5, 2022 shows loanDepot Park, the home of Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins in Miami, Florida. (Essonne Info) ==Essonne Info

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