Starting with the Samurai: Australia v Japan

Returning to BF&N with the first dispatch of his globetrotting year, it’s BaseballBrit

On March 3rd, in front of a boisterous crowd of 33,748 at the Nagoma Dome, the second best baseball team in the world, Samurai Japan, beat the eighth best, Australia, by 2 runs to 0.

From a personal point of view the international exhibition game represented the start of my 2018 baseball season. Over the course of this calendar year I hope to travel, experience and write about the game across different countries and levels for Bat Flips & Nerds.

The current aim is to attend 74 professional baseball games, conveniently one number higher than Barry Bonds’ single-season home run record, and the most I can realistically report on, considering time, money and the waning patience of my better half.

Throughout this period I will be learning more about the game and it’s value to the various communities and people who live in the cities and small towns along my route.

I will also be tracking the progress of a few select baseball players in the independent and minor leagues – whom I hope you will come to know and follow throughout the season. My introductory pieces on these professional players will follow soon.

For now though, my 2018 season starts in Japan…

GAME 1: Australia vs Japan
Score 0 – 2
Level: International Exhibition
Location: Nagoya, Japan
Ballpark: The Nagoya Dome
Attendance: 33,748
Beer price: 700 Yen (£4.81)

In many ways the match-up of Japan and Australia in Nagoya was the perfect start to my baseball odyssey. International baseball should, in theory, be the pinnacle of each player’s ascension through the various levels of organised league play and should showcase the best a country has to offer.

In addition, Japan have frequently been ranked as the best international team in the world by the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC), despite dropping to #2 in the latest standings released in February. This game represented the first meaningful match-up for fans before the start of the regular Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) season on March 30th.

In contrast, the Australian national team were largely put together from players who had just finished a 40-game, 3 month season in the Australian Baseball League (ABL). The 28 players in this squad were now either preparing, or hoping, to continue playing in the northern hemisphere’s summer months.

Most importantly, perhaps, was the opportunity to rack up performance points needed to consolidate Australia’s WBSC ranking position in the hope of qualifying for the following major international baseball competitions:

  • The WBSC Premier 12 tournament (2019)
  • The Olympics in Tokyo, Japan (2020)
  • The World Baseball Classic (2021)

From my vantage point, thirteen rows back along the first base side, I was able to speak with some of the parents and friends of the Australian players. My own ticket had been provided by Todd Van Steensel, a relief pitcher in the Minnesota Twins organisation who had a 1.38 ERA in 58.2 innings for the Chattanooga Lookouts in Double-A last year. From this fortunate placement I learned of the following pay structure for the Australian players involved in this two game series.

Team Australia – Pay Structure (in Australian Dollars)
$1,750 For making the squad
$400 Meal money for the trip
$800 Win bonus

It is important to note that many Australian players are not full-time professionals and have regular jobs during the off-season. For example, Josh Tols, the 2017 ABL strike-out leader (interviewed in Episode 59 of the podcast), has worked as a manual labourer for the past two seasons whilst pitching for the Melbourne Aces. In fact, Tols had to withdraw from this squad after being signed to a minor league contract by the Philadelphia Phillies with an assignment likely at the Double-A Reading Fightin Phils.

The game itself was headlined by two interesting pitchers with their comparable statistics for the past season shown below:

PITCHER TEAM IP SO ERA WHIP W/L
Kodai Senga Fukuoka Softbank Hawks (NPB) 143 151 2.64 1.07 13-4
Travis Blackley Brisbane Bandits (ABL) 52.1 58 4.82 1.53 5-2

The stony-faced Senga fanned the first five batters and punched out the sixth before being withdrawn after two innings. Watch his entire ‘lights-out’ performance here. His replacement, Shota Imanaga (2.98 ERA in 2017) struck out another four of the next six Australian players. In total Japan gave up just four hits across nine innings and six pitchers.

Blackley, who was interviewed in Episode 56, enjoyed six strikeouts and gave up two hits across five scoreless innings throwing 86 pitches. His 17-year career has been an interesting one with stops at five MLB teams, but now, at the age of 35, the lefty remains unsigned.

Japan were able to break open the game in the bottom of the sixth, driving home a pair of runs and getting Australian reliever Steve Kent pulled from the mound after 21 pitches.

Australian relievers Sam Street and Van Steensel both escaped challenging situations in the later innings, but Japan’s ability to take advantage of key situations proved the difference.

All in all a fantastic atmosphere combined with an interesting match-up between mostly ABL and NPB players made this a truly memorable start to the 2018 season. My next stop will be in South Korea for the build up to the 2018 KBO season.

(The second game in this international series took place in the futuristic Kyocera Dome in Osaka after I had flown out of Japan. The Samurai won 6-0 in a dominant performance.)

Short highlights of both games can be found here: Game 1 / Game 2

For more information and posts on the NPB and ABL I would recommend adding the following accounts on Twitter:

NPB: @NPB_Reddit & @JballAllen

ABL: @ABL & @tbaustralia

References

https://www.baseball-reference.com/

https://www.japantimes.co.jp

http://npb.jp/bis/eng/2017/stats

http://southernthunder.baseball.com.au/

http://www.milb.com/player/

One comment

  1. Thank you for reporting on the Aussie team. The 2018 two game series marked the third such pair of exhibition games since 2009, which was followed in 2013. Both of those previous series were in the lead-up to World Baseball Classic play, and subsequently the most recent games hopefully represent more regular encounters. Playing Japan in a dome is playing to their advantage and when Australia defeated Japan twice at the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics both games were played outside in the heat. The Aussies have a younger batting line-up now and hopefully they can accumulate more valuable experience as time goes on. The strength of the Aussie team is their pitching and this will only get better. All things considered the Aussies displayed some competitive baseball with a young team.

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