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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Showcasing His Mighty Swing, Shohei Ohtani Continues Dominant Start to Season

Ohtani's powerful swing produced "the hardest-hit ball in the majors so far this season," the Los Angeles Daily News reported.




Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout, in the 10th season of his exceptional MLB career, is a perfect role model for Shohei Ohtani.

Trout has been so good for so long that talent alone doesn't define what he's accomplished on the baseball diamond. 

The eight-time American League All-Star and three-time AL MVP might not explain every aspect of his all-around excellence like a waiter describing a recommended dinner item on a menu at a five-star restaurant. Nevertheless, Ohtani can observe Trout's no-nonsense approach to the game and be reminded that hard work every day is a big ingredient in staying consistent and maintaining staying power in the bigs.

ESPN and Bleacher Report both listed Trout, who was ranked No. 1 in 2020, as the top baseball player on the planet this year, too.

Bradford Doolittle penned this glowing analysis of Trout for ESPN's top 25 player rankings: "If you can judge a player's greatness by his worst seasons, with Trout, you can see at a glance why he's as much in a race with the likes of Babe Ruth and Willie Mays for historical supremacy as he is with Mookie Betts, Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. for the best-right-now throne that remains his, and his alone." 

Through Thursday, April 15, Ohtani was tied with Trout for the team lead in runs, hits, home and home runs, and he was No. 1 in RBIs and stolen bases.

It's a reminder of Ohtani's ability to impact a game as a hitter and on the basepaths.

He's clearly enjoying himself as the team's regular designated hitter. He's locked in as a hitter and demonstrating that he's comfortable in this role while also focused on making a strong impact as a starting pitcher this season as well.


Trout raised his batting average to a team-best .386 through Friday, April 16. He also leaped to first in runs (12), with Ohtani a close second (11), with both men playing in 13 games entering the weekend. Trout, Ohtani and first baseman Jared Walsh are tied for the team lead in homers (four).

Ohtani leads the club in total bases (36), including three doubles and two triples. He's also stolen two bases; the team has three steals to date.

Put it all together, and Angels manager Joe Maddon likes what he's seeing from Ohtani on offense.

Take Los Angeles' 10-3 road win over the Kansas City Royals on Monday, April 5, for example.

In the seventh inning, Ohtani clubbed a two-run double that ricocheted off the right-field wall. 

His powerful swing produced "the hardest-hit ball in the majors so far this season," the Los Angeles Daily News reported.

How hard?

The ball's exit velocity, aka the speed at which it left his bat, was measured at 119 mph (191.5 kph).

Ohtani insists that his offseason workouts have paid dividends, making him a more forceful presence in the batter's box.

“I have my lower body there, it’s strong,” Ohtani, now in his fourth season in the majors, was quoted as saying through an interpreter by the California newspaper. “That’s the biggest difference from last year. If it was last year, I wouldn’t have been able to pull that ball that hard.”

Maddon observed that Ohtani is displaying patience at the plate while also being aggressive in looking for his pitch.

“He’s covering a lot of different pitches,” Maddon said of Ohtani, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. “He’s covering the high fastball. He’s covering away now. He’s not chasing like he had been earlier. So it’s just a matter of time. He’s going to get on a nice little streak and they’re just going to start popping, because the swing has that kind of force behind it.”



[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Shohei Ohtani’s Batting Struggles Magnified in Shortened Season
BASEBALL | Shohei Ohtani, Angels Hammer Out New Two-Year Deal

Arihara Records First MLB Victory

Texas Rangers right-hander Kohei Arihara collected his first MLB win on Wednesday, April 14. He also received a cowboy hat for being selected as Texas' player of the game. Elevating the festivities to a level beyond that of a normal regular-season game, his teammates gave him a beer shower after the Rangers' 5-1 road triumph over the Tampa Bay Rays.

Arihara picked up a no-decision in his big-league debut earlier this month, then lost his second start.

The third time was a charm for the former Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher. The 28-year-old worked 5 2/3 innings, allowing three hits and no runs. He walked one batter and struck out five. Arihara threw 85 pitches (53 for strikes).

"I'm glad I contributed to the team's victory," Arihara told reporters. "I want to continue this kind of pitching."

In the second inning, Tampa Bay had runners on second and third with no outs. Arihara then worked out of the jam unscathed. After a pop-up, he got back-to-back strikeouts to slam the door on the hosts' scoring threat, including Yoshitomo Tsutsugo whiffing on a slider for out No. 2.

“He hadn’t had a ton of strikeouts before that,” Rangers manager Chiris Woodward was quoted as saying by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “That was probably the three biggest at-bats of the game.”

Giants' Hara Collects 1,100th Career Win

Yomiuri Giants skipper Tatsunori Hara celebrated a career milestone on Thursday, April 15, winning his 1,100th game as a manager. The Giants beat the Chunichi Dragons 5-1 at Tokyo Dome.

Hara became the 11th NPB manager to win 1,100 games.

Downplaying the achievement, Hara stated that each ballgame is a fresh challenge for him. "I am still facing every day with the feeling that I am just born," he told Nikkan Sports.

A Quick Look at Some Top NPB Players This Season

Yokohama DeNA BayStars hurler Haruhito Hamaguchi, who is 3-0 in four starts, led the Central League with 23 strikeouts, and Yomiuri Giants pitcher Nobutaka Imamura was No. 2 in punchouts (21) in three starts through games of Thursday, April 15. Orix Buffaloes standout Yoshinobu Yamamoto held the Pacific League lead with 30 Ks while issuing just five walks in 28 1/3 innings through the same day. 

Among the NPB's hitters, Munetaka Murakami of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows led the CL in home runs (seven) and walks (17) while batting .315 with 17 RBIs, which was tied for No. 1. In the PL, Chiba Lotte Marines slugger Leonys Martin bashed seven homers through his first 18 games of the season.


Masters Champ Matsuyama Reflects on Whirlwind Week

Hideki Matsuyama noticed something different about his golf game in the run-up to the Masters last week. And it was a good sign for the 29-year-old.

Matsuyama shot 3-under 69 in the first round and a 1-under 71  in the second, then shot a 7-under 65 in the third round to take a four-stroke lead into the final round on Sunday, April 11. He won the tournament despite a 1-over par 73 in the fourth round, beating American Will Zalatoris by one stroke.


“Technically, I've had some pretty frustrating days since the beginning of this year and haven't been able to see the results that I've wanted,” Matsuyama told PGA.com. “But after my practice round on Wednesday, I felt like I kind of found something and started to feel pretty good about my chances that week. It’s hard to define what those feelings were but that was probably the biggest impression I had going into the tournament.”

The Ehime Prefecture native admitted that fatigue set in after his historic victory in Augusta, Georgia, where he became the first Japanese man to win a golf major.

"I'm really tired. For the first time ever, I don't want to swing a club,” Matsuyama acknowledged during an online news conference on Wednesday.

Reflecting on the ups and downs of his golf career, he vowed to savor the euphoric feeling of his Masters title and try to control his outbursts in the future.

"Winning has turned everything leading up to this into a good memory," he said, according to published reports. "I've slammed my club before, but I want to be careful not to do that."

Indeed, Matsuyama achieved one of his biggest goals by winning the Masters, but admitted that he'll take some time to set new targets.

"I'm still feeling a lot of new emotions," Matsuyama commented. "I'm not really at the stage where I'm ready to set my next goal, so right now I just want to enjoy the moment a little longer while playing some golf."

The PGA Championship, U.S. Open and British Open loom large on this year's compressed sporting calendar, May 20-23, June 17-20 and July 15-18, respectively. 

Up next: Matsuyama is tentatively scheduled to return to the links at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina, May 6-9. He could skip that event and instead get back to work at the AT&T Byron Nelson, which starts on May 13 in Texas.

Naturally, Matsuyama knows that the Olympic golf tournament, scheduled to be held at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, July 29-August 1,  is of great interest to many people in his homeland and beyond.

“To be honest, I don’t know what will happen yet, but I think I will be selected via the rankings,” he was quoted as saying by PGA.com. “So right now, I just plan to be careful and try and avoid any injuries in the tournaments I have left to play before the Olympics, and then go there and win a gold medal.


“That’s my goal, and I’ll do my best to accomplish it.”

GOLF | Hideki Matsuyama Captures Historic Title at the Masters


Three-Time World Champion Ebinuma Retires

Masashi Ebinuma realizes that his skill level is no longer what it once was during the prime of his career.

Which is why the highly decorated judoka decided now's the right time to retire.

"I've decided to retire. I don't feel like I can compete on an international level anymore," Ebinuma told a news conference on April 15.

The 31-year-old was not chosen to represent Japan in the 73-kg weight class at the World Judo Championships in June in Budapest.

Ebinuma plans to pursue a career as a judo coach.

The Tochigi Prefecture native thrived in the men's under-66-kg division, winning gold medals at the world championships in 2011, 2013 and 2014. He also captured bronze medals at the 2012 London Games and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Ebinuma gained a strong foundation in his chosen sport during his junior high school and high school years. He took lessons at Kodo Gakusha judo school for six years.

Judo NPO Looks Past COVID-19 and Early Return to International Exchanges



Gamba's Usami Notches Ends Team's Scoreless Drought

After two defeats and two draws in their first four games of the 2021 J. League campaign, the Gamba Osaka remained scoreless.

That, finally, changed on Wednesday, April 14. Takashi Usami booted the ball into the net in Gamba's 1-0 away victory over Sagan Tosu.

In the 68th minute, Usami was on target from the right side against Sagan goalkeeper Park Il Gyu.

Managerial Change for Struggling Antlers

The Kashima Antlers parted ways with Brazilian manager Antonio Carlos Zago and promoted Naoki Soma from the team's coaching staff to replace him, it was announced this week.

The J. League squad opened the J. League season with two wins, two losses and two draws in its first eight matches and sat in 15th place through April 14, when the leadership change was announced.

Zago, 51, took over as manager in January 2020.

Soma, who played fullback for the Antlers from 1994-2003, previously managed Kawasaki Frontale (2011-12) and Machida Zelvia (2010, 2014-19).


Raptors' Watanabe Has Top Scoring Game of NBA Career

Toronto Raptors small forward Yuta Watanabe maximized his playing time on Friday, April 16 against the Orlando Magic, scoring 21 points. It was his highest-scoring game in the NBA.

The third-year pro made 7 of 11 shots from the floor, including 2 of 4 from 3-point range. Watanabe was 5-for-5 from the free-throw line. Nailing nothing-but-net jumpers, throwing down a forceful dunk and running the floor with purpose and an abundance of energy, Watanabe gave the Raptors a big spark.

He also grabbed six rebounds, doled out two assists and blocked a shot in 27 impactful minutes off the bench. Watch highlights of the Kagawa Prefecture native's excellent offensive performance here.

The Raptors beat the Magic 113-102 in Tampa, Florida, their home away from home during the pandemic due to cross-border travel restrictions.

"I'd be lying if I said there's no pressure. But now I'm getting the mental leeway to enjoy that kind of pressure in a positive way," Watanabe told reporters after the game, according to Kyodo News. "I'm getting more into more offensive plays and it really boosts my confidence."

He's averaging 3.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, 0.6 assists and 12.9 minutes in 38 games this season.

Watanabe had his best-scoring game as a pro in an NBA G League contest on January 22, 2020, putting 40 points on the board in the Memphis Hustle's 138-121 victory over the Delaware Blue Coats.


In related news, Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura left the game in the third quarter on Saturday, April 17 after sustaining a left knee injury against the Detroit Pistons. Washington won 121-100, extending its winning streak to four.

B. League to Expand Top Division to 24 Teams in 2022-23

The B. League will increase the number of first-division clubs to 22 for the 2021-22 season and then raise it to 24 for the 2022-23 campaign, league chairman Shinji Shimada announced on Tuesday, April 13.

Currently, there are 20 B1 teams and 16 clubs in the second division (aka B2). Last season, both divisions had 18 teams.

Discussing the league's decision to promote more teams from B2 to the top flight over the next few seasons, Shimada cited the league's overall business plan, which emphasizes the bigger media exposure and commercial activities of the first division.

Reading between the lines, one can see that the league is seeking to prop up a few teams with financial challenges while also continuing to raise the profile of its overall brand.


Murakami Earns Fifth National Title

Mai Murakami, the women's all-around silver medalist at the 2018 World Gymnastics Championships, kicked off her preparation for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics with a statement-making victory in the same event at the 75th All-Japan Gymnastics Championships on Saturday, April 17 in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture.

For Murakami, it was her second national crown in as many years.

The 24-year-old earned 112.564 points at Takasaki Arena for her fifth overall all-around Japan crown. Call her the nation's gymnastics queen. Hitomi Hatakeda finished second with 110.598 points.

"It felt like time stood still for me from 2019, but I'm very glad I was able to kick off this year by winning the first meet," Murakami was quoted as saying by Kyodo News after capturing the title.

Next month's NHK Cup will be another good tune-up event for Murakami in the run-up to this summer's Olympics.

Quotes of the Week

“We could only dream of something like this. Honestly, who could have even imagined it? It’s more than a dream, really. I can’t find the words to explain it. Maybe it can be like 1957 again, our first golf boom.”

ーAndy Yamanaka, secretary-general of the Japan Golf Association, on Hideki Matsuyama's victory in the Masters.

“With his Masters win and his return to the Olympics and a possible win, it could create a perfect storm that could lift golf into the stratosphere like in the ’80s and ’90s. Hideki's win is generational and the impact it will have will be so interesting to witness.”

Joe Gaughwin, an Australian PGA member who’s been working in Japan for several years, told Golf Digest. 

Editor’s note: Interested in submitting a news item for possible inclusion in the Japan Sports Notebook? Send an email with relevant information to e.odeven@japan-forward.com, or JAPAN Forward’s comment’s page  or Facebook page and look for future editions of Japan Sports Notebook on our website.

Author:  Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward's [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays,  in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.

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