NPB news: March 7, 2023

Playing catchup in Osaka with baseball morning, noon and night. So please forgive the delays. Today, I’ve got stuff on Japanese pitching mounds from someone who knows, WBC warm-up game notes, and some more fun stuff.

So let’s get started

Japanese mounds getting more uniform

Since the 2014 MLB tour of Japan, NPB stadium mounds have, one-by-one, been changing. That November, groundskeepers transformed Koshien Stadium’s mound to MLB specs, using American Black Stick clay bricks, and pitchers did not complain.

“No complaints means you’re doing it perfectly, because you’re never going to get compliments in Japan,” said Yosuke Iwata, the Orix Buffaloes’ chief groundskeeper at Kyocera Dome Osaka, which hosted WBC warm-up games in previous tournaments and underwent the same transformation.

In 2018, Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium and Nagoya Dome also got the treatment, and since both venues have since upgraded their mounds using American clay bricks, one can only assume that pitchers and pitching coaches did not complain.

“This time we didn’t have to do any real work at Kyocera Dome other than raise it a little bit,” said groundskeeper Joe Skrabak, who works for Brightview, the company run by the legendary Murray Cook. “Most of our work was on the bullpen mounds. Nothing major.”

The process has caught on slowly because Japan groundskeepers have no association to share information and that most venues treat their techniques as trade secrets.

“That’s the way it is,” Iwata said. “Although I’m completely open. Anybody who wants to see what we do is welcome.”

The result of that has been a shift to harder more uniform mounds.

“Except for Seibu,” Iwata said of the mound at the Lions’ dome that has now replaced Koshien as NPB pitchers’ least favorite. “Pitchers can still dig a sizable hole with their landing foot there.”

Pool B teams officially tune up

Sunday marked the start of WBC Inc.’s involvement in teams’ preparations, with official practice sessions followed by games from Monday in which MLB players were allowed to take part.

I’m not going to recount all of Monday’s games except to say South Korea made three errors at shortstop and dropped ground balls and were outplayed by a scratch spring-training caliber Orix Buffaloes team 4-2, while Shohei Ohtani put on a home run clinic in BP and followed that with one in the game as Japan beat the Hanshin Tigers 8-1.

Ohtani hit two balls off the outer ring suspended from the dome’s ceiling in BP, and the video I really wish I had would have been of the Tigers players stretching, contorting their bodies this way and that, while their heads swiveled in unison to follow the trajectory of Ohtani’s shots, like they were all being pulled by the same evil puppet master.

Lars Nootbaar had two hits, scored a run and drove in one, Sosuke Genda had three hits and scored twice, Kensuke Kondo walked twice, doubled and scored twice, and Masataka Yoshida doubled in a run.

On the pitching side, Yoshinobu Yamamoto worked three innings and allowed a run, but declared himself satisfied with his adjustments to the tournament ball and Keiji Takahashi got to try out a slider Yu Darvish taught him in his three innings.

Yuki Matsui, after two awful warm-up games, threw the first of three 1-2-3 innings from the bullpen, followed by Atsuki Yuasa and Ryoji Kuribayashi.

In other Pool B warm-ups, Australia, China and the Czech Republic played in Miyazaki against corporate league opponents. Australia got hammered 15-2 by powerhouse Japan Railways Kyushu, China was thumped 5-2 by Saibu Gas, while the Czechs beat Miyazaki Umeda Gakuen 7-5.

Tigers still enjoying freedom from press

Monday also marked my return to the field for the first time since March 2020, thanks to the WBC.

Talking to a TV announcer for TBS, the DeNA BayStars’ broadcaster, I learned that some teams are already allowing reporters back on the field so they can interact with the players. The Tigers, are currently an exception. Hanshin will allow fans to cheer while masked, but allowing masked reporters free access to players is something they’re not yet ready for after three years of freedom from the press.

It kind of makes sense. The Tigers are historically Japan’s most hyper conscious team when it comes to their media coverage, so the ability to banish reporters from the field must have made COVID seem like a blessing to the organization.

It also suggested an answer to why Hanshin didn’t take BP before Monday’s game against Japan, when the dome was crawling with Japanese media. They did hold BP early Tuesday morning when virtually all of the reporters on hand were there to cover South Korea.

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