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Baseball: Yu Darvish Cool Key to Japan’s World Baseball Classic Triumph

March 31, 2023 Japan Sports

Although he only pitched in six innings, surrendering five runs, Yu Darvish was the cornerstone of Japan’s World Baseball Classic championship by instilling calm within a young team that was able to play loose and tough.

Although manager Hideki Kuriyama’s laid-back approach was a factor, no one was more responsible than Darvish for Japan’s stars performing as they usually do back home while beating some of the world’s best players in the U.S.

Samurai Japan’s elder statesman, the 36-year-old Darvish attended the team’s training camp from Day 1 on Feb. 17 so he could integrate himself with the team’s young pitching staff.

Unlike the roster’s three other MLB players, including Shohei Ohtani, who spent two weeks with their U.S. teams before traveling to Japan in early March, Darvish skipped training and at least one preseason game with the San Diego Padres so he could go all in for the WBC.

“The young players really didn’t know me or Ohtani,” Darvish said before the final against the United States. “On top of that there was an age difference, and I disliked the idea that there would be this kind of gap between us (within the team).”

“I decided to come early because time was short and I wanted to fix that.”

Darvish was the center of attention in Miyazaki, southwestern Japan, where the team trained, going above and beyond the important role Kuriyama envisioned for the 10-year MLB veteran.

“I selected these players in order to win the championship,” Kuriyama said. “And part of that was a belief that if Darvish would come, he would do so in order to make the team extremely strong. And that’s how it played out.”

“I myself have seen how over these many years, Darvish has opened up to young Japanese pitchers, showed them how he trained and how he applied nutrition, and how these youngsters have studied to become exceptional pitchers.”

Before traveling to Japan, Darvish said he wanted his teammates not to get carried away by the big stakes of playing for the national team.

“One could say that they were too worked up,” Darvish said. “It’s not like we’re going to war. I want them to understand that it’s not necessary to get fired up.”

Darvish socialized with his teammates, answered questions, gave feedback, and was a rock of calm that helped keep the team stay loose.

That calm was evident at Miami’s loanDepot Park, when on consecutive nights, Japan came from behind to beat two teams loaded with MLB talent to seize the title.

Ohtani, the tournament’s MVP, said after Japan’s dramatic win over Mexico in last Monday’s semifinal, “Everyone is playing naturally without any kind of awkward nerves.”

Japan came from a run down in the final to beat the U.S. 3-2, holding the powerful American lineup in check behind a parade of pitchers that impressed U.S. manager Mark DeRosa.

“We didn’t swing the bats great tonight. Credit to them, though. I mean, they were bringing in some nasty dudes,” said DeRosa, who had not imagined his offense could be held to just two runs.

“I wouldn’t have thought that (was possible) going in, regardless of who we were facing.”

Under pressure, Japan thrived. Japan’s Tokyo Olympic manager Atsunori Inaba, who played in two previous WBCs and coached in another, contrasted the 2023 champs with Japan’s previous WBC teams.

“(In the past) there was never any margin for fun,” Inaba said.

Mission accomplished, Darvish, who was Japan’s winning pitcher in 2009, gave all the credit to his teammates.

“Compared to that time (2009), this is a young, cheerful, fun team. A good team,” Darvish said. “It wasn’t just Ohtani. Everyone had fun.”

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