At Tokyo 2020, TANAKA Masahiro hopes to pick up what he left behind at Beijing 2008 - a gold medal

Japan's lone two-time Olympian, ex-New York Yankee determined to help team to the top of podium - regardless of role.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

TANAKA Masahiro is the only player on the current Japan team who knows the hurt from Beijing 2008.

As a 19-year-old just getting his feet wet in professional baseball, Tanaka made three scoreless appearances, striking out nine in seven innings. But the team lost to the United States for the bronze.

Fast forward to 2021 on Monday (2 August) and Tanaka, now a seasoned 32-year-old who spent the past eight years with the New York Yankees, was on the Olympic Games mound facing the U.S. again.

But with a semi-final place at stake, he wasn't great.

Tanaka, who rejoined the Rakuten Eagles in Japan this winter from the Yankees, failed to get out of the fourth after allowing three earned runs on six hits.

At least the team won this time, 7-6 in extra innings, yet the right-hander was anything but pleased with the outing. Prior to the game, Tanaka said he was going to "carry the nation on my back".

"Great win!", he tweeted after the game. "But I only feel frustration with myself.

"I struggled with my command and gave (catcher UMENO Ryutaro) a hard time. I feel bad about that.

"I had a few conversations after the game. It's my turn next to step up for the team.

"The battle continues so I need to keep my chin up and be ready".

Tanaka
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Standing by for gold

Tanaka's first season back in the Pacific League since 2013 has been solid but not outstanding - as one might expect from the highest-paid player in NPB.

He is 4-5 with a 2.86 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 85 innings, numbers that pale to eight years ago when he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in leading the Eagles to the Japan Series championship.

Some say Tanaka has lost the zip in his fastball - he threw predominantly breaking balls on Monday - which could be a reason why the Yankees did not make him an offer he could nod yes to.

Tanaka says he had offers from other major league teams and that it was his choice to return to NPB, against the backdrop of a pandemic raging in the States.

For the first time since Atlanta 1996, Japan managed to reach the gold-medal game in baseball on Saturday but MORISHITA Masato, not Tanaka, is projected to start for manager INABA Atsunori's team. It's looking likely that if Tanaka is to reappear at these Games, it will be out of the pen.

Tanaka needs this gold medal as much as anybody not only to exorcise the demons of 13 years ago but also to reestablish his worth, to show that he has plenty of baseball left in him.

Tanaka's role for the final remains to be seen. But at the very least, he will be ready.

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