November 06, 2015

TOKYO (AP) Baseball will be looking to move a step closer to an Olympic return with the start of the new Premier12 tournament this week.

Featuring the top 12 nations in the WBSC rankings, the inaugural tournament will be played in Japan and Taiwan from Nov. 8-21.

The quadrennial tournament is being organized by the World Baseball Softball Confederation with Olympic qualification going to the winner, beginning in 2019, should the sport be reinstated to the games.

''The Premier12 platform provides another key opportunity for players to represent, promote and honor their countries,'' WBSC president Riccardo Fraccari said. ''It's a chance to build on the wave of continued globalization and excitement within our sport, particularly during this time when it's under Olympic observation for potential inclusion at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.''

Baseball has been out of the Olympics since the 2008 Beijing Games but is favored to return to the program for the Tokyo 2020 Games because of its popularity in Japan.

The joint bid of baseball-softball has been recommended for inclusion by the Tokyo organizing committee along with four other sports.

A final decision on which sport or sports to add to the Tokyo program will be made by the International Olympic Committee next August.

Japan enters this year's event as the top-ranked team followed by the United States and Cuba. Taiwan is ranked fourth ahead of the Netherlands (5) and the Dominican Republic (6).

The other teams taking part in order of ranking are; Canada, South Korea, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Italy and Mexico.

The teams are divided into two groups of six for round-robin play, with the top eight progressing to the knockout stages.

Japanese All-Star Shohei Otani will be the starting pitcher for the opening game against South Korea on Sunday at the 40,000-seat Sapporo Dome.

The 21-year-old Otani posted a 15-5 record for the Nippon Ham Fighters with a 2.24 ERA and 196 strikeouts this season.

The United States, featuring a squad comprised of players from the farm systems of Major League Baseball teams, plays its first game on Nov. 10 against the Dominican Republic at the Taoyuan Baseball Stadium in Taipei.

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