SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — The Cubs’ spring schedule was released earlier this year with “Asia WBC Team” listed as the opponent for the game at 1:05 p.m. Arizona time Saturday, March 18 at Sloan Park.
Wednesday, I learned that Japan will be the Cubs’ opponent. Japan and the Netherlands are the two teams coming out of Pool E at the Tokyo Dome; both of those teams head to the semifinals at Dodger Stadium on March 20. Japan will play the runner-up in Pool F (now playing in San Diego) and the Netherlands will play the Pool F winner. The Netherlands team also has an exhibition game this Saturday, against the Diamondbacks at Talking Stick.
The sole MLB player on Japan’s team this time around is Nori Aoki, who has played for the Brewers, Giants, Royals and Mariners (and if he’d switched his Giants and Royals seasons around, he’d have two World Series rings instead of none), and will be with the Houston Astros in 2017. But Japan has some other fine players, even in the absence of their best player, Shohei Otani, who’s missing the entire tournament due to an ankle injury.
Leading the way offensively for Japan is Sho Nakata, who’s hitting .294/.429/.882 (5-for-17) with three home runs. Tetsuto Yamada homered twice for Japan in their Tuesday win over Cuba, and Yoshitomi Tsutsugoh’s homer for Japan Wednesday against Israel gave them a lead they never relinquished. Tsutsugoh was named MVP of Pool B, the first-round games in Tokyo. Here’s his homer against Israel:
Pitching-wise, Kodai Senga has thrown nine innings in the tournament without allowing a run. He’s given up just five hits and one walk and struck out 11. If you saw any of Japan’s games (not easy because they were on in the pre-dawn hours in the USA), you likely saw closer Kazuhisa Makita, a submarine-baller whose hand nearly hits the ground before he throws (this is from Japan’s second-round win over Cuba):
Japan is undefeated in their six WBC games, defeating Cuba, Australia and China in the first round, and taking all three second-round games against the Netherlands, Cuba and Israel.
Just because most of Japan’s team is not composed of MLB players, don’t get the idea that they’d be a pushover for the Cubs. This is a good team that defeated a Netherlands squad that has quite a few very good MLB players. I assume the Cubs will put their regular lineup out there, at least for a few innings on Saturday. John Lackey is scheduled to throw for the Cubs that day. The game, unfortunately, is not scheduled to be televised.