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China finding role in WBC

by Stephen Ellsesser

Chinese baseball is a work in progress, and the World Baseball Classic is the next step for the developing international program.

News photoChina manager Jim Lefebvre addresses the media at a Tokyo hotel leading up to the World Baseball Classic.

Charged with bringing China up to speed in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, manager Jim Lefebvre and his players said that they are eager for the challenge of facing host Japan in their WBC opener Friday, even if they are up against long odds.

“Team Japan has a chance to go a long way in this tournament,” Lefebvre said Monday night at a Tokyo hotel. “They have a chance to win it.”

Japan will start Koji Uehara against China, and the Yomiuri Giants star is fresh off a dominating eight-strikeout performance in an exhibition game last weekend against a Nippon Professional Baseball All-Star team at Yahoo Dome in Fukuoka.

Uehara faced China once before in an Olympic qualifier for the Athens Olympics in 2003, shutting down the Chinese bats.

A lot more mature, China shortstop Zhang Yufeng and center fielder Sun Lingfeng are eager for another chance at Uehara, one of Japan’s most successful international pitchers of all time.

“I could not do good at all (against Uehara in Sapporo),” Zhang said. “This time, I am better than the last time. I think I can do better against Mr. Uehara.”

Uehara and the Giants play their home games at Tokyo Dome, and in the WBC, Sun knows that fan support for the home team will be overwhelming.

“I know Uehara is a popular pitcher, but that has nothing to do with me,” Sun said. “I know he is popular, but I don’t want to think about it because it will be more pressure on me.”

Sun, China’s best player and its leadoff hitter, said that playing in front of the large crowd would be enough of a change, even if it was not rooting for the heavily favored opposition.

Too bad for China the crowd most assuredly will be on Japan’s side.

“This will be a hardship for us,” he said. “For me growing up, I did not have this opportunity in China. It is important for me to focus, focus on the game, focus on the ball.”

Pro games in China rarely attract more than a few hundred spectators, so Lefebvre is trying to keep his team mentally and physically disciplined leading up to the WBC.

“What we’ve been doing, as far as Team China is concerned, is get bigger, get stronger and get smarter, and what I mean by that is to learn to play the game correctly,” Lefebvre said. “The important thing is we are setting our sights on getting better and better. This is a great stepping stone for us.”

China plays its first exhibition game at Tokyo Dome on Tuesday night against Yomiuri. The Chinese will start Wang Nan against the Giants, and Lefebvre is planning to bring in a steady parade of relief pitchers along the way as well as making liberal substitutions among the position players.

Chen Kun, Lefebvre said, also would get some innings Tuesday at the Big Egg.

“We’re going to get as many pitchers as we can in the game so they can get the feel of the mound and a feel for the stadium,” he said. “We’d like to win and put on a good display out there, but the important thing is to get everyone out there so when it starts, we’re ready to go.”

Mora out of WBC

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) Orioles All-Star Melvin Mora has pulled out of the World Baseball Classic after being asked to play center field for Venezuela, rather than third base.

“I’m an honest man,” said Mora.

“I cannot go to that competition to try to play something I don’t know how to play. I mean, I know how to play that, but it’s a long time. I don’t play center field. I’m a third baseman. I cannot do that,” Mora said Sunday.

Mora, who hasn’t played in the outfield since the 2003 season, said that he would have deferred the third base position to veteran teammate Edgardo Alfonzo, 32, but he didn’t think he should have to play the outfield in favor of 22-year-old Miguel Cabrera of the Florida Marlins.