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Japan maintains mental focus for showdown with Cuba

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Team Japan is back in the promised land, the place where it received respect and glory.

But for now, “Samurai Japan” sets those things aside.

Japan’s World Baseball Classic squad, which arrived in San Diego on Friday after a short training camp and a pair of exhibition games in Arizona, took the field at PETCO Park to work out on Saturday, following the three other Pool 1 nations — Mexico, South Korea and Cuba — which will play in the second round.

Japan, the Pool A runnerup in the first round in Tokyo, will once again be facing the baseball-crazed nation of Cuba, which it defeated 10-6 in the championship game at the same ballpark in the 2006 inaugural tournament, in the first game of the group on Sunday afternoon.

As the 2009 version of the tournament resumes for the reigning champions, who wrapped up their first-round play last Monday along with South Korea, the team members seemed relaxed and looking forward to the rematch with Cuba.

Indeed, it will be a significant contest because a win would leave Japan just one victory shy of advancing to the final rounds in Los Angeles. In addition, if Japan beats Cuba, skipper Tatsunori Hara’s squad would gain a mental boost for later games.

Though the team went through a light workout, Japan’s fielders checked out the odd shape of the stadium, including outfield fences that are irregularly laid, and the natural turf to see how fast the ball rolls. And the pitchers assembled near the mound to carefully examine its slope.

“The turfs in Arizona were deeper, so grounders are going to roll faster,” said Yasuyuki Kataoka, who has been a backup infielder but may start on Sunday in place of shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, who has been recovering from a fever.

“I haven’t played here, but hopefully it’s comfortable to play for us.”

Veteran catcher Kenji Johjima said he needs to be cautious when playing at a ballpark with grass. On natural grass fields it can be difficult to predict how a loose grounder, including bunts, will roll, he added.

“If a grounder goes toward the lines, the one who makes the decision to let it be a foul or not is me,” Johjima said decisively. “We’re here to practice on that.”

While the majority of the Japanese media here were curious about how Japan will approach this game, Team Japan members, including Hara, emphasized that their main focus in the first second-round game will be to play their own game.

“Rather than thinking of the opponent, we’re making it our priority to play our game,” Hara said.

In the teams’ last meeting, Cuba beat Japan 4-2 in the Beijing Olympics.

Superstar Ichiro Suzuki offered this blunt assessment of the Cuban team: “It’s the same as the last time.”

But Akinori Iwamura warned — and spoke for his team — that Japan will not play thinking it is the defending king but rather thinking of itself as the challenger.

“They have a lot of big international game experience,” the Tampa Bay Rays second baseman said. “And they have so much love for this game, and sometimes we’re almost overwhelmed by that. But we’d like to go against them not (thinking that way).”