Aoki Brings Experience To Samurai Japan

Aoki brings experience to Samurai JapanThrough five seasons in the major leagues, outfielder Norichika Aoki never distanced himself from his roots across the Pacific. The aura of the Hinomaru looms large in his preparations for his first season with a new club.
“No matter what the situation is, I will be happy to participate,” Aoki told Samurai Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo last summer, when Kokubo visited him to sound him out about playing for Japan in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

“To play for Japan is just what I wanted to do,” Aoki said.

Aoki, who joined the Houston Astros in the offseason, is the lone major leaguer who will play on the Japan team in this year’s WBC starting in March.

The Samurai Japan brain trust expects the 35-year-old veteran to contribute to the team with his wide experience. Aoki was a member of Japan’s teams to both of the first two WBCs, which Japan won in 2006 and again in 2009.

He particularly stood out in the 2009 WBC, in which he appeared in every game, batting third in the lineup and hitting .324. He tied for the team lead with seven RBIs. Houston is Aoki’s fifth stop in his major league venture, which started in 2012 with the Milwaukee Brewers and has included stints in both the American and National leagues.

“Knowing or not knowing the opponent makes a big difference,” Aoki said. “I look at this WBC differently than before.”

As the team’s senior member, he intends to openly provide his younger teammates with everything he knows. In the major leagues, many pitchers make use of fastballs that move close to the batter, and Aoki had to make adjustments to his own batting style when he made the jump overseas. But he is reticent in offering countermeasures.

“What’s significant is to play persistent baseball,” Aoki said. “Prepare fully and play hard, just as you’ve always done. If some players want to ask me, they will get my advice. But sometimes it’s better not to know.”

The message he is sending is that relying on natural ability is most important.

Aoki got goose bumps when he watched Ichiro Suzuki’s winning hit to beat South Korea in the final of the second WBC. Aoki skipped the third WBC, which he watched on TV.

“From the moment I came to the United States, I’ve always wanted Japan to do well,” Aoki said.

While Kokubo said he intends to use Aoki in one of the top two slots in the lineup, the outfielder pledged to contribute with his full effort wherever he hits.

“There is no other stage on which I am so moved when I hear the national anthem,” Aoki said. “That said, I just want to win. That’s the only thing on my mind.”