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Japan hungry for second WBC title

by Jason Coskrey

Ichiro Suzuki expects Asian baseball to once again show the world its might on the international stage over the next two weeks.

With Japan leading the way, of course.

The second edition of the World Baseball Classic kicks off Thursday at Tokyo Dome with defending champion Japan eager to reclaim its place atop the baseball world. First pitch for the Japan-China game is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.

“My heart is burning,” Ichiro said during a recent news conference at Tokyo Dome. “In global baseball, who is the best? Which country is the best? That is the question that will be answered in several days.”

The rest of Japan’s roster possesses a similar mind-set, motivated by the memory of the nation’s dismal showing in the Beijing Olympics.

“I’ll make every effort to contribute to becoming the world’s No. 1,” pitcher Satoshi Komatsu said.

Ichiro helped lead Japan to the title in ’06 but wasn’t available to compete during the Olympics as the games took place during the Major League Baseball season. Japan stumbled to a fourth-place finish in the tournament.

While Japan faltered, South Korea shone in Beijing, beating Cuba in the gold medal round. The Koreans will join Japan in Pool A for the first round, giving the grouping — which also includes Taiwan and China — the winners of the last two major competitions.

“In the last two major competitions Asian teams have won,” Ichiro said. “That is important. I believe it shows the power of Asian baseball.

“Of course in this Asian round we are aiming to win. Then we will go to the U.S., represent Asia and win again.”

While Taiwan and China are still improving, South Korea is a formidable opponent capable of winning the WBC title.

“We cannot look over the Tokyo opponents,” Komatsu said. “As for me, I’ll play my style of baseball in order to win games.”

The top two teams emerging from the double-elimination grouping will advance to the second round in the United States. South Korea won the pool in 2006 and Japan is aiming to take that crown this time.

“Our goal is to earn a winning record before going to the United States,” Tampa Bay Rays infielder Akinori Iwamura said. “We are getting better. We want to get closer to 100 percent before the tournament begins.”

Ichiro will be joined by fellow major leaguers Daisuke Matsuzaka (Boston Red Sox) Iwamura, Kosuke Fukudome (Chicago Cubs) and Kenji Johjima (Mariners).

Japan has also called on the best Nippon Professional Baseball has to offer, headlined by the last two Pacific League MVP and Sawamura Award winners, pitchers Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma.

“The power of Japanese players is something I’d like to show,” manager Tatsunori Hara said. “I would expect the Japanese players to show their skill. We have called great players from all over the world. Each will show his pride, respect . . . and impress the world. If we can do that, we have nothing to be afraid of.”

Japan starts its title defense against a Chinese team that should have them well scouted. China is managed by former Orix Buffaloes skipper Terry Collins and its expected starting pitcher, Lu Jiangang, is a former Chunichi Dragon.

“We’ve seen the data on them,” Johjima said. “We’ll be prepared.”