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Japan counting on Darvish against South Korea

by Jason Coskrey

SAN DIEGO — Japan and South Korea have seen a lot of each other in the World Baseball Classic. Enough that Ichiro Suzuki thinks it might be their fate to play each other over and over again.

“I guess we should get married then,” Ichiro joked during Monday’s practice at PETCO Park when informed the teams were preparing to meet for the sixth time as WBC opponents.

There won’t be any nuptials but Japan is hoping for a joyous occasion on Tuesday when it faces South Korea, which is 3-2 against Japan in WBC contests including the inaugural 2006 tournament, with a spot in the semifinals on the line.

“There are no difficulties, only fate,” Ichiro said when asked if it was hard to face the same team so many times. “It’s like if you happen to see your former girlfriend on the street. If it’s fate, it will happen.”

Japan’s fate in Tuesday’s game will rest on the shoulders of Yu Darvish, who will make his first-ever start against South Korea.

“I don’t want to lose,” Darvish said during the workout session. “I’ve seen them since Beijing, so I know what kind of team they are.”

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham ace is 1-0 in the WBC, striking out six and giving up just one hit in five scoreless innings. Darvish’s last outing in the tournament was a one-inning relief appearance in Japan’s 1-0 loss to South Korea on March 9 at Tokyo Dome.

Darvish noticed that teammate Daisuke Matsuzaka had success pitching inside to the Koreans but admitted he doesn’t have a set game plan yet.

“Daisuke threw a lot of two-seamers and cutters inside,” Darvish said. “I’m sure they’ve planned for that. I’m not sure if I’ll do the opposite or not. I’ll think about it after I face the first batter.”

The South Korean offense showed it was a force to be reckoned with in a 8-2 victory over Mexico on Sunday which set up the rematch with Japan. South Korea hit three solo homers off major leaguer Oliver Perez, who walked away impressed.

“The Koreans play good baseball,” Perez said after the loss. “They can play with power or they can play small ball. That’s why you have to be careful.”

Darvish won’t be taking anything for granted, even though the game is being played at one of the hardest major league parks to hit homers and score runs in.

“Well, they hit three home runs yesterday, so I won’t think about that,” Darvish said.

Japan shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima is expected to return to the lineup after missing the team’s 6-0 win over Cuba on Monday with a fever.

Nakajima practiced with the team and said he was feeling better and ready to play. He was also happy with the performance of his replacement, Yasuyuki Kataoka.

“He was hitting and fielding well,” Nakajima said of Kataoka, also his teammate with the Seibu Lions. “He was good.”

South Korea enters the game confident, having won the teams’ last meeting, the aforementioned 1-0 triumph on March 9.

“Japanese teams are strong teams,” South Korea first baseman Kim Tae Kyun said. “Every time we play them, we want to win.

“We are going to meet the Japanese team many times,” Kim said, looking to the future. “We should beat them and we have to do our best. It appears we have a chance and we should not lose this chance.”

If South Korea is going to capitalize on this chance, it’s going to need to score runs against Japan. The powerful South Korean offense has shone during this year’s tournament, scoring 34 runs in their five games.

The downside, however, is only three of those runs have come against Japan, the only team South Korea has lost to in WBC competition. After two earlier losses to South Korea in the 2006 tourney, Japan defeated its rival 6-0 in the semifinals, also at PETCO Park, and in their first meeting in 2009, earning a 14-2 seven-inning win on March 7.

If there was any concern among the Japanese that South Korea was poised for a breakthrough performance, it didn’t show. Ichiro was even relaxed enough to let his mind wander to other matters after practice.

“I should’ve brought Ikkyu (his dog) since we’re playing at PETCO,” Ichiro joked. “Because this is the only place where you’re allowed to do that. I’m not kidding . . . maybe only half-kidding.”