Baseball: All eyes on Sasaki in Japan's WBC semifinal with Mexico

With Roki Sasaki's 17 straight perfect innings a year ago in mind, Mexico manager Benji Gil said Sunday he is excited to see the Japanese youngster pitch in their World Baseball Classic semifinal, but suggested he would prefer it to be against someone else.

Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama tapped the 21-year-old to start against Mexico on Monday as his team bids to return to the tournament final for the first time since 2009, and Gil, who is aware of what Sasaki brings, could not hide his admiration.

"I'm excited to see him play," Gil said after his team practiced at Miami's loanDepot park. "Roki is one of the best pitchers in the world."

Gil said Sasaki, who last year became Japan's youngest perfect-game pitcher, could succeed right now in MLB, and joked that if he had his choice, Sasaki would be stepping onto the big stage against someone else's team.

"101, 102 miles an hour plays anywhere, and he's got great secondary pitches," Gill said. "I haven't seen him pitch live, and I almost wish I were not seeing him pitch live."

Kuriyama called Sasaki one of the pitchers Japan is most proud of and is keen to show him to fans around the world, although Sasaki insisted that showcasing his talent in America would be a byproduct of a successful game, and not his goal.

"I want the team to win more than any desire I might have for people to see what I can do now," he said. "I want people to see me pitching at my best so we can win."

To accomplish those goals, Sasaki moved outside his regular routine and threw bullpens on consecutive days after arriving in America.

"I did that because this is a park I've never pitched in," Sasaki said. "I wasn't able to throw off the stadium's mound, but I did make use of the bullpen, and was able to get closer to a sense of how it will feel when the time comes."

Sasaki watched Mexico beat two-time WBC finalist Puerto Rico in their semifinal on Friday and was impressed.

"I felt they have extremely compact swings, with some serious home run power in their lineup, too," he said.

"I'm braced and ready for this big game. If we don't win, there's no tomorrow."

Sasaki said he has not received any advice about the Miami mound from Japan teammate Shohei Ohtani. The MLB superstar did, however, have some words with Mexico's scheduled starting pitcher, Patrick Sandoval, his teammate at the Los Angeles Angels.

"We asked each other how things were going, how our preparations were progressing," Ohtani said.

"I'll be facing some players I know, but I'm not going to make any big changes. I took live BP (batting practice) against Sandy earlier in the spring, and I don't imagine doing anything different."

Sandoval will be the second Angels teammate Ohtani has competed against in the WBC, having pitched to Italy infielder David Fletcher in Japan's quarterfinal win Thursday.

With another Angel star, outfielder Mike Trout, in the WBC semifinals with the United States, Sandoval was asked if there would be any trash-talking after the tournament.

"Absolutely, without a doubt," Sandoval said.

© Kyodo News