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Japan players primed for semi with S. Korea

by Stephen Ellsesser

SAN DIEGO — Team Japan’s got the big smile down. All it needs now is the big win.

News photoIchiro Suzuki watches a fly ball during practice in San Diego.

Japan (3-3) will go against South Korea (6-0) for the third time in a World Baseball Classic semifinal Saturday at Petco Park.

South Korea has outpitched, outfielded and outhit Japan in their two meetings, challenging Hinomaru sovereignty in Asian baseball.

And after qualifying for the WBC semis through a somewhat dubious tiebreaker with Mexico and the United States, Team Japan has never had more to prove against its rival.

“We thought somehow the Americans would be the world’s best,” Team Japan manager Sadaharu Oh said. “When we lost (to them), we didn’t think we could advance to the next round.”

But that’s exactly what happened when Mexico stunned Team USA and ace Roger Clemens on Thursday in Anaheim.

Mexico, the United States and Japan all finished with a 1-2 record in the second round, and Japan advanced because it had given up fewer runs per innings defended than either of the others, but it was close.

Team USA was the visiting team against Mexico on Thursday, and had it been the home team, it would be gearing up to play the undefeated South Koreans.

“I wasn’t planning on this at all,” catcher Tomoya Satozaki said. “I am happy beyond belief. I cannot express how I am feeling.”

But the time for euphoria has passed. Both Japan and South Korea head into Saturday knowing full-well the stakes. Someone is going home, and someone is going to play for a championship.

“Up to now, Japan has been known to be a top team in Asia, but we work harder to beat Japan,” said South Korea team captain and former Chunichi Dragon Lee Jong Beom.

“I think that because of that, because of our strong will, the zeal to beat the Japan team, maybe there is some hidden power that comes out.”

South Korea’s invisible cloak will have to deflect bullets from Koji Uehara this time. Uehara (1-0) has a 2.70 ERA in two WBC starts, the highest among the starters Japan has used in the tournament. In 10 innings, he has given up three runs and struck out eight.

Shunsuke Watanabe made both starts against South Korea, giving up just one earned run in 10 2/3 innings.

“Watanabe did great in both games, so I’d like to follow in his footsteps and do whatever he did in those games,” Uehara said. “South Korea’s hitters are really persistent, and they always try to advance runners and score as many as possible with small opportunities.”

Thanks to the bat of first baseman Lee Seung Yeop, South Korea hasn’t needed many small opportunities. The Yomiuri Giants’ top offseason acquisition is batting .400 in the WBC, and he has five homers and 10 RBIs.

Lee homered in the eighth inning of South Korea’s 3-2 win over Japan at Tokyo Dome on March 5, and Uehara, the Giants’ ace, knows he will have to be careful against Lee.

“The guy I really want to watch out for is my teammate back in Japan, Lee Seung Yeop,” Uehara said. “I’d like to throw my best pitches as much as possible.”

South Korea will start Seo Jae Weong (2-0), who has wins against Mexico and Taiwan on his WBC resume. In nine innings of work, he has seven strikeouts and has surrendered only one run.

Seo, who was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the offseason, will hope to continue the momentum for a South Korea pitching staff that has been unforgiving, unkind and just plain nasty on the way to hammering out its unbeaten WBC mark.

And that means mowing down Team Japan’s batters. “South Korea and Japan are known to be the top two teams in Asia, and that’s why we have a strong rivalry,” Seo said. “It also goes back to our history and tradition. It stems from our parents’ generation and us, and I’m sure the next generation will feel the same.”

The winner of the Japan-South Korea game will meet either Cuba (4-2) or the Dominican Republic (5-1), which will play in an earlier semifinal game Saturday.

The two teams met once before with the Dominicans prevailing 7-3.

The Dominican lineup is loaded with some of the best talent in the WBC, and its potent batters will hope to overwhelm a Cuban squad composed of non-MLB stars.

Adrian Beltre, Albert Pujols, Miguel Tejada, David Ortiz and Ronnie Belliard are just a few of the stars of the pre-WBC favorite Dominicans.

Beltre has four homers and nine RBIs, both team-high totals. Only Lee Seung Yeop has done more damage with the longball.