Behind a strong pitching performance from Kenta Maeda, the Japanese national baseball team shut out the MLB All Stars 2-0 Wednesday to kick off the 2014 Suzuki All-Star Series.
The 2014 Suzuki All-Star Series marks the first time since 2006 that MLB players have played in Japan. It is the 11th All-Star Series between Japan and the MLB and the 36th time a team of MLB players has toured Japan dating back to 1908.
In front of a capacity crowd at the Kyocera Dome in Osaka, Japan, Maeda put on a strong performance on the mound against a formidable MLB squad featuring star players Robinson Cano, Yasiel Puig, Evan Longoria and Jose Altuve. The MLB prospect struck out two, walked two and allowed just two hits in five innings en route to the victory.
During his 71-pitch performance, Maeda out-dueled Los Angeles Angels pitcher Matt Shoemaker. Showing strong command of his pitches, Maeda only allowed a first-inning single to Seattle Mariners second baseman Cano and a fifth-inning double to Houston Astros outfielder Dexter Fowler.
Maeda, who plays for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of Nippon Professional Baseball’s Central League, has been a consistent force over the last few years. His career 82-52 record and 2.40 ERA have made him one of NPB’s best pitchers.
The 26-year-old first turned heads abroad in 2010 by winning the Eiji Sawamura award, given to NPB’s best starting pitcher. That season he also won the Triple Crown in pitching. Triple Crown winners lead their respective leagues in wins, strikeouts and ERA. Maeda became the first pitcher since 1999 to achieve the feat in Japan.
Due to his strong play over the years, Maeda is no stranger to international attention. Starting last offseason, he has been the subject of many MLB rumors. His name has most been frequently mentioned in connection with the New York Yankees, who lured staff ace Masahiro Tanaka from the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan’s Pacific League ahead of the 2014 season. Tanaka posted an impressive 2.77 ERA en route to a 13-win debut season and an All-Star game appearance.
Maeda’s dominant performance on Wednesday suggests that he too may be ready to make the jump to MLB.
While Maeda has expressed interest in playing for the MLB, the question remains if the Carp will choose to make Maeda available to the MLB through NPB’s posting system. This system allows NPB teams to post its players for a 30-day negotiating period in which MLB teams may bid for the player.
Tanaka was the last player acquired by an MLB team through the posting system. The Yankees starter, also a former recipient of the Eiji Sawamura award, is just the latest in a string of success stories of Japanese players in MLB.
Kansas City Royals outfielder Nori Aoki was a starter in the World Series this year, while starting pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma (who is part of the MLB squad currently in Japan) and Yu Darvish of the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers, respectively, have had excellent starts to their careers. Their path to the MLB was paved by the legendary careers of Japanese outfielders Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and pitcher Hideo Nomo, among others.
Japan plans to use the opportunity to showcase players other than Maeda, as well. Boston Red Sox Manager John Farrell, who is coaching the MLB team in Japan, has expressed particular excitement over getting to see 20-year-old pitcher Shohei Otani perform. Otani pitched the eighth inning of Game One is slated to start in the series-concluding Game Five.
Team Japan and the MLB stars will play three games in Tokyo, then finish the official competition in Sapporo before playing an exhibition in Okinawa on Nov. 20. The winning team of the series receives 100 million yen (U.S. $865,000) in prize money.
Many of the biggest names in baseball bowed out of the competition due to postseason weariness or wanting to spend time with their families. For these reasons, the fans will not be able to see the likes of Angels first baseman Albert Pujols.
In fact, the 29-man MLB roster only includes four participants in the 2014 MLB All-Star Game: Houston Astros second baseman Altuve, Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Puig and Cano.
Maeda’s performance Wednesday put plenty of scouts on notice and may find him playing in America come springtime.
Daniel Litke is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Capitals Hill appears every Friday.