Baseball-Japan and South Korea retain advantage in East-West clash

March 17, 2019; Tokyo, Japan; Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto (6) ended up throwing the ball to first base to complete a double play in the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners at the Tokyo Dome. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports / File Photo

OAKLAND, Calif., July 5 (Reuters) – Japan and South Korea are favorites in the Tokyo Olympics baseball tournament after selecting the best players from their domestic leagues, while the other four competing countries will build on on minor leagues and veterans after their prime.

Cuba has won three of five Olympic gold medals in baseball since joining the program in 1992, but failed to qualify for Tokyo after the defections of several top players.

This opened the field in baseball’s first appearance at the Olympics since 2008, when South Korea denied the Cubans a fourth gold medal.

Major League Baseball (MLB) in the United States has banned the participation of its players, including batting leaders Shohei Ohtani and Fernando Tatis Jr.

The restriction – aimed at avoiding a mid-season shutdown – deprived the six Olympic teams of the world’s elite players, but had more impact on the United States, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Israel.

The Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) in Japan and the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) will take a break for the Olympics.

While the leagues’ contrasting stance is nothing new, South Korea and Japan enter the Olympics with their players having been significantly less affected by COVID-19 lockdowns.

NPB played 120 games last year, and South Korea their full list of 144 games. The MLB has put on a 60-game season, well below its usual 162. The US minor leagues and the Mexican League were canceled last year.

“The NPB is one of the most excellent leagues in the world,” Japanese manager Atsunori Inaba told Reuters. “Daily experience in top level games will surely make players” their best.

Foreign spectators are banned due to COVID-19 concerns, ensuring Japan will have strong support at home.

Not having to travel helps too.

Mexico plans to train at 3 a.m. in the five days before their 2 p.m. flight to Tokyo, borrowing a prep technique from boxers competing overseas.

Familiarity with a ball more suitable for pitchers than the one used in the West may also help Japan, who will also benefit from their players knowing each other so well: five of their 24 players are from a single NPB team.

Inaba’s roster includes the NPB home run leader and some of its toughest pitchers, including Masahiro Tanaka, but he declined to declare Japan the favorite, saying either country could compete.

South Korea has the KBO’s best hitters on average and based over hitting percentage, although a young pitching staff.

Israel is in Olympic team sport for the first time since football in 1976. Its roster includes MLB free agents and even an MLB coach.

Mexico coach Benjamin Gil is looking for significant contributions from minor leagues, including pitcher Hector Velazquez and former MLB star player Adrian Gonzalez, who currently plays for Gil’s side in Guadalajara.

“He is the most productive first baseman in the league,” Gil told Reuters. “He has erased any doubt that he can still play.”

The US and Dominican rosters are still unclear, with potential players bouncing between MLB and minors.

Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Peter Rutherford

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.