Nervous? Not Japan’s big bats chasing Little League repeat

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) — People in the Japanese city of Kawaguchi have long memories.

They still recall the last time a team from this town north of Tokyo made it to the Little League World Series, ultimately losing to Georgia in the 2006 final.

“A lot of people (in Kawaguchi) say ‘2006. Don’t forget about it, get the title back to Japan,'” manager Hiroyuki Takahashi said through an interpreter.

Doesn’t matter to these players as they chase a second straight world title for Japan — the oldest kids were infants back in 2006.

Today, representing Japan comes with expectations.

Japanese teams at the Little League World Series have returned home as victors five of the last eight years, and have the second-most championship victories all-time with 11, only behind the 17 won by Taiwan.

A team from Tokyo last year cruised through the international bracket, then beat a team from Lufkin, Texas, by mercy rule in the championship.

Takahashi was nonchalant when asked if his team felt any pressure to continue that dominance.

“Nothing,” he said. “We just play our best.”

Kawaguchi showed what that best meant during Japan’s qualifying tournament. The team scored 45 runs in four straight wins, including a 23-2 win over Nagasaki Minami Little League to clinch a trip to South Williamsport.

“It was just the boys’ best effort.” Takahashi said.

Kawaguchi will be tough to stop if it can stay hot at the plate. But even if the team cools off, Takahashi isn’t worried.

“We have a very good defensive team,” said Takahashi. “I’m not sure of the defensive stats, but our defense is also very decent.”

Kawaguchi has a little time to work on any weaknesses ahead of its first game against Europe-Africa representative Barcelona on Friday.

Third baseman Shinji Furusawa doesn’t think his team has anything more than minor tweaks to make ahead of competition.

“We scored the 45 runs while in the Japan Regional Tournament,” Furusawa said, also through an interpreter. “We are capable of defeating these teams.”

Takahashi said he’s noticed one disadvantage for his team — there’s only one player taller than 5-foot-5. Japan’s first baseman, Masato Igarashi, is the tallest at 5-foot-9.

“I think Japan is very skilled and they have good accuracy,” Takahashi said. “But some other teams have bigger bodies so we don’t know what kind of baseball they play.”

Still, the first few days for the teams in Pennsylvania have been more about fun than scouting.

“There are really a lot of different teams, so we’re just trying to make friends,” he said. “Team Australia gave us T-shirts with all of the players’ autographs on them, so we took a picture with them. It’s really good that international teams are making friends.”

Make no mistake, even while he’s connecting with players coming from across the world and across language barriers, Japan’s catcher Masaumi Ikeuchi still has his mind on the diamond.

“We want to show the performance we have (in us),” Ikeuchi said. “We want to have the first score.”

BATTER UP: The tournament is scheduled to start Thursday afternoon with Puerto Rico taking on South Korea. Central Pennsylvania has had an unusually rainy summer, which has organizers and volunteers hoping for a break in the weather through Aug. 26, when the championship game is scheduled.