Ibata passes first national team test

New Samurai Japan skipper guides team to APBC title




The Japan Times



Shortly after Hirokazu Ibata’s unveiling as the next Samurai Japan manager in October, he told the assembled media that he wanted to be able to dispense advice to his players in critical moments. Fast-forward to Sunday night at Tokyo Dome, where Japan was locked in a 3-3 tie with South Korea in the 10th inning of the Asia Professional Baseball Championship final. Makoto Kadowaki, who was 0-for-4 at that point, was about to bat for Japan with two outs and the bases loaded. As the Big Egg rocked from the cheering of over 41,000 fans — the vast majority pulling for Japan and the rest hoping the Koreans could escape the jam — Ibata approached Kadowaki and offered a few words to the 22-year-old. The moment Ibata had envisioned came to pass, and whatever he said worked. Kadowaki singled through the left side of the infield, and the Japanese walked off as 4-3 winners and APBC champions. “I was trying too hard to pull the ball in my previous at-bat,” Kadowaki said. “He told me to do what I normally do, so I did, and it was the best feeling.” Ibata had to feel pretty good as well. It was not the World Baseball Classic or even the Premier12, but it was a start — and a successful one at that. Ibata Japan is now in full swing. The APBC is a U-24 tournament, so there is a chance many of the players on the Japan roster may help the nation chase bigger prizes in the future, perhaps even as early as the Premier12 next year. “We had young players this time, and I think they were able to see how difficult an international competition is,” said Ibata, who represented Japan at the 2013 World Baseball Classic as a player. “I think they have grown a lot. “The (NPB) regular season is coming up, and we have the Premier12 next year. I hope many of them can return to the Samurai Japan team.” Despite the APBC being a four-nation tournament for players under 24, there may still have been a certain pressure on Ibata. Managing Japan comes with expectations. Atsunori Inaba led the nation to the Premier12 title in 2019 and Tokyo Olympic gold in 2021. In April, Hideki Kuriyama, Ibata’s direct predecessor, guided the team to the World Baseball Classic crown. Now Ibata takes his turn at the helm, with a contract that runs through the Premier12 in 2024. He got his tenure off to a flying start with wins over Taiwan, South Korea and Australia, with Japan allowing just one run in those games. The rematch against South Korea on Sunday gave Japan its first taste of adversity when the Koreans went ahead 2-0 on a two-run double by Roh Si-hwan in the third inning. Shugo Maki homered for Japan in the fifth to make the score 2-1, and Teruaki Sato tied it with a sacrifice fly in the sixth. South Korea went ahead again in the 10th on an RBI single by Yoon Dong-hee. Japan battled back again, this time through Shogo Sakaura’s game-tying sacrifice fly and Kadowaki’s sayonara hit. “We were always behind in the practice games in Miyazaki,” Ibata said. “We played two games like that. Someone has to light the spark to help everyone get going. The home run by Maki changed the atmosphere and (reliever Haruka) Nemoto pitched well for three innings. That gave us momentum and we set the stage for Kadowaki.” The players gathered near the middle of the field and tossed Ibata in the air to celebrate the win on Sunday. Ibata selected Maki — one of Japan’s overage players at 25 and a member of the WBC team — because he thought his experience would be a good influence on his teammates. He also revealed he is not a big fan of bunting early and often. The former NPB great identified the versatility of shortstop Kaito Kozono and used that to construct his lineups in Japan’s four games. Ibata passed his first test and can look ahead to March, when he will lead the full national team against a European select team in two exhibitions in Osaka, with the Premier12 looming at the end of 2024. “I’m relieved,” he said. “I thought the young players we selected did a good job. I wanted them to play well so it would be a good experience for their future. I think they played their best.”