Baseball: Japan's Kokubo, Aoki boosted by team bond toward WBC semis
Japan skipper Hiroki Kokubo and Houston Astros outfielder Norichika Aoki expressed confidence Thursday over the way their team members were jelling together as they posted six straight wins in pool play of the World Baseball Classic.
"There wasn't even one easy game, and I believe the players have gone up a level after having fought together," Kokubo told reporters in Tokyo, hours before his squad left for the United States to prepare for the WBC final round next week.
"Players, who are the main members in their respective clubs, are putting their hearts together for Japan, and the solidarity is our biggest strength."
After defeating Cuba, Australia and China in the first round, Japan needed 11 innings to beat the Netherlands, allowed Cuba to take the lead three times before coming from behind for the win and stopped Israel in the second round.
"For me it's all about trusting the players you send out on to the field. I was steadfast on not having any doubts in the players," said Kokubo, who acknowledged that his team will not have the home support it received in the round-robin rounds at Tokyo Dome when it plays in the final round in Los Angeles.
"We had that many fans making their way to the Dome everyday and we made the most of having the backing from the entire stadium," the manager said. "We'll miss them but we will also play knowing how much support we have back home and etch that in our hearts."
A place in the last four was the least expected of Japan as it looks to reclaim the title it won in 2006 and 2009, having missed out on a place in the final game for the first time in 2013 with a semifinal loss to Puerto Rico.
The road to the final this year is expected to be tough again, as all four potential teams it could meet in the semis include major leaguers.
"We have to think that the semifinals are everything for us," Kokubo said. "The players must not get swamped by the stadium atmosphere or by the name of the players they face."
While Japan and the Netherlands made it through to the semis from second-round Pool E, defending champion the Dominican Republic, 2013 runner-up Puerto Rico, the United States and Venezuela are vying for the two remaining slots from Pool F being played in San Diego.
Japan, the Pool E winner, will meet the Pool F runner-up at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday, a day after the first semifinal between the Netherlands and the Pool F top finisher. The final is scheduled Wednesday.
Aoki, the only big league player on the Japanese roster this year, having moved to the United States in 2012, is willing to share what he knows with his teammates -- to an extent.
"I'd like to tell them what I can (about the players in the major leagues)," he said. "I believe all the batters want to know how their pitches travel."
"What will be more important, though, is what each of us sense when we actually face them. We've all been hitting the way we have been and we must not waver on the way we swing. I want all of us to place emphasis on how they actually look before their eyes."
The 35-year-old player, who won the first two WBC titles but missed the 2013 competition, is ready to play a role similar to that of former national teammates who were big leaguers.
"We had major leaguers like Ichiro (Suzuki) and (Daisuke) Matsuzaka before and they were leading us," he said. "I've seen them do that and hope it will continue to be a good tradition in Japanese baseball. I'm in that position this time and hope I can communicate well."
But Aoki feels there is something more to the current squad.
"This team has everyone driving the team forward together," he said. "Now we have to go out to swamp the other team, because that is what they will be out to do against us."