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Tuatara sign deal with Japanese club
Three Chiba Lotte Marines to play in Auckland
10/16/2018 10:31 PM ET
Short stop Taiga Hirasawa will play for the Tuatara in 2018-19.
Short stop Taiga Hirasawa will play for the Tuatara in 2018-19. (Chiba Lotte Marines)

The Auckland Tuatara has signed three top Japanese major league players for their inaugural season in the Australian Baseball League-and also agreed to a partnership with the players' Japanese club, which will positively impact the sport in New Zealand for years to come.

Chiba Lotte Marines players including star young position player Taiga Hirasawa and starting pitchers Tomohito Sakai and Atsuki Taneichi will arrive in Auckland in November and play for the nation's newest professional sports franchise as the club embarks on its debut season. The three players will be available for five weeks of their regular season campaign, including all three home series in November and December in west Auckland.

The Marines were an inaugural member of the Pacific League (one of the two divisions of the Nippon Professional Baseball league or NPB as it's known to baseball fans) and were founded in 1950. They won their first Japan Series in 1950 and have added a further three titles in the 68 years since - the most recent in 2010.

Representatives of the franchise recently visited New Zealand and met with officials from both the Auckland Tuatara and Baseball New Zealand. Subsequently, the three parties have signed a Memorandum of Understanding that will benefit all parties and will see the Marines consider the Tuatara their winter home for their players who require and want more game time in their winter while the Marines will be able to scout the local talent. A key component of the agreement is for the Marines is to assist with upskilling New Zealand coaches and players in future years, along with assistance provided to create a national facility on the north shore of Auckland.

"I am very pleased that our team's athletes can participate in the Australian League as Tuatara players," General Manager of Chiba Lotte, Nobuhira Hayashi, said. "I hope that this will deepen the relationship between Baseball New Zealand and the Chiba Lotte Marines, which had been in friendly relations from before, and that we will be able to contribute to the promotion of baseball in New Zealand."

There are quite clearly huge benefits for the sport in this country with the access to leading players for the Tuatara franchise but also opportunities for Kiwis through this newly-created pathway to one of the world's two biggest professional baseball leagues.

"This is a massive partnership for our franchise and for the sport in New Zealand," Tuatara General Manager of Baseball Ryan Flynn said, who added that Japanese superstar and occasional New Zealand resident Naoyuki Shimizu played a key role in the talks over the past three years.

"Baseball is the national sport of Japan and the Japanese national side, the Samurai, is among the absolute best in the world, having won two World Baseball Classic events and many Olympic medals over the years in our sport. These players are stars in the very strong Nippon Professional Baseball League," Flynn added, "and we are privileged that they have chosen to partner with our organizations-and that our fans will be able to see world class talent in Auckland this summer. It's as good as it gets, really!"

Hirasawa is a 20-year-old shortstop who was drafted with the Marines' first pick in the 2015 and is a budding superstar. Sakai is a right-handed pitcher who struck out 55 over 83.2 innings of work, and Taneichi is also a right-handed pitcher who struck out 28 in 38 innings of work during this past Nippon Professional Baseball League.

"I would like to make an effort to reflect on some of the issues and potential improvements that we have faced this year," said Hirasawa, who played mostly in the outfield this season, but who will revert to his natural shortstop position for the five weeks of winter ball. "I think there will be a lot of opportunities to anchor the infield over there, so I hope to improve my defensive technique during matches and train hard to stand up to the pitches of the powerful foreign players who play in the Australian Baseball League."

Pitcher Sakai is keen to develop his pitching against hitters that will be very foreign to him on a regular basis.

"I believe next year (2019 NPB season) is really going to be a pivotal year, so I really appreciate the opportunity to play winter baseball and pitch during the off season," Sakai said. "Rather than trying to get around the powerful foreign hitters, I want to work on my fastball so I can win some games and help Auckland. I hope to come back from playing abroad with a lot of new discoveries under my belt."

Taneichi will use his time with the Tuatara as a springboard into the next Japanese season as well, which winter baseball is all about for professional players from the world's top leagues.

"In last year's winter league in Taiwan I took the mound as a relief pitcher in six matches and managed to keep our opponents scoreless over that time, which has given me a lot of confidence, and I hope to continue to make a good showing going forward," the right-hander said. "I would like to focus on throwing a lot of strikes and on continuing to improve my general pitching technique as well."

The Auckland Tuatara begin their debut season with a trip to Perth to face the Heat in a four-game series on November 16-18 and host their very first game in New Zealand a week later when the three-time reigning ABL champs Brisbane Bandits visit Auckland. It is expected that Taneichi and Sakai will start two of these four games during the historic home opening series.

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This story was not subject to the approval of the Australian Baseball League or its clubs.