When the second World Baseball Classic begins on Thursday, all eyes will be on Japan.
Which is just fine with the defending champions.
“We want to show to the world, not just Japan, what we can do here,” second baseman Akinori Iwamura said.
Japan put the finishing touches on its preparations for the WBC during a final workout on Wednesday at Tokyo Dome. Japan will play against China in the first game of the 2009 tournament. First pitch is set for 6:30 p.m.
“Finally the WBC starts,” manager Tatsunori Hara said. “My heart is very calm now. Throughout the tournament we are going to have ups and downs . . . but we will play hard.”
There seems to be a lot of pressure on Japan to perform well, especially on home soil, after a dismal showing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and lackluster performances in its final two exhibitions.
The Japanese players, however, seem to feel otherwise.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” outfielder Kosuke Fukudome said. “Rather than feeling pressure, I am looking forward to the tournament. We are the only team that can win two straight championships, so I am very excited.”
Japan has called upon its best players for the WBC, fielding a roster with five major leaguers, including Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and the best the NPB has to offer.
Ichiro has been mired in a slump during Japan’s exhibition games, but is expected to lead the charge once the games begin as he did in 2006.
“Ichiro is the team leader,” Hara said. “But he’s not alone. We have other members who can support him. However, as the leader I expect him to live up to the expectations of the mass media and the people.”
Japan, along with South Korea, enters the tournament as one of the favorites to reach the second round from Pool A, which also includes China and Taiwan. The top two teams in the double-elimination group advance to the next round, in the United States.
“Not only the Korean team, but all the participating teams are trying to do our best,” South Korea manager Kim In Sik said.
The Koreans won this group in the 2006 tournament and should be motivated after winning the gold medal in the Olympics last year.
Despite their heated rivalry with the Korean squad, Japan appears content to focus on its own play.
“We don’t really care how the Korean team plays,” Fukudome said. “What is important is to concentrate on what we have to do and everything will be all right.”
Japan opens the tournament against China, which is managed by former Orix Buffaloes skipper Terry Collins.
Seeking to get its title defense off to a roaring start, Japan will send star pitcher Yu Darvish to the mound to open the tournament. The 22-year-old Darvish was 16-4 for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in 2008 and is arguably Japan’s top pitcher.
“I know the pitching staff is very good for Japan,” Collins said. “I have said many times I think Yu Darvish is one of the top pitchers in the entire world. So we have a huge challenge ahead.”
It will be up to Beijing Tigers hurler Li Chenhao, who will start for China, to keep his team in the game early.
“We selected him because of his variety of pitches,” Collins said of Li. “When you face such a formidable lineup, you’ve got to change speeds. You can’t be behind in the count, and he throws a lot of strikes. So I felt he would be the best guy to open with.”
South Korea will face Taiwan on Friday.
“Our plan against Taiwan is the same as against any other opponent,” Kim said. “We try our best, we do our best and we’ll give our best.”
Even without slugger Lee Seung Yeop, who chose to remain with the Yomiuri Giants this spring, South Korea has a squad capable of winning the WBC.
“We’ve had good preparation,” Kim said. “Our primary goal is to advance to the second round.”
When asked about his goal for Japan in the tournament, Hara also made his intentions perfectly clear.
“We are headed toward the championship,” he said.