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Asia ready to make final push for world domination

by Jason Coskrey

SAN DIEGO — Before the start of the World Baseball Classic, Ichiro Suzuki said he wanted the world to see the power of Asian baseball.

So far he’s gotten his wish.

Asia’s baseball might has been put on display during the 2009 WBC where Japan and South Korea have emphatically brushed aside all challengers on their way to the semifinal round.

“I am so happy to move to the next round,” Japan infielder Michihiro Ogasawara said. “I am looking forward to it.”

The two rivals have dominated their opponents, combining to outscore Cuba, Mexico, China and Taiwan 46-2, with their only real tests coming in four meetings against each other.

Japan won the teams’ first game on March 7 at Tokyo Dome, but the Koreans bounced back with wins on March 9 and 17 respectively.

The Asian rivals squared off for the fourth time in the final game of the second round on Thursday with Japan winning 6-2.

Now, each can look ahead to the semifinals, mindful of the fact they could meet again in the final.

Japan will face the United States in its semifinal contest, a matchup of two of the premier baseball-playing nations in the world.

“I am very excited about that,” Hara said of facing the U.S. “When I started watching the major leagues I was very impressed. We need to catch up with the major leagues and we need to go beyond that.

“I have a great deal of respect for American baseball and here is a great opportunity right in front of me. I am so excited about that.”

The U.S. enters the round hobbled after a number of injuries but poses a significant threat to Japan’s hopes of defending its WBC title.

Washington Nationals star Adam Dunn has helped power a strong U.S. offense, batting .368 with three homers while Mark DeRosa, of the Cleveland Indians, leads the team with seven RBIs.

The Americans’ offensive prowess will be put to the test against arguably the WBC’s best pitching staff. Among the semifinalists, Japan’s pitchers, who have thrown three shutouts, have been by far the most impressive. In 60 innings the Japanese hurlers have given up just nine runs, eight earned, and have a team ERA of 1.20.

Hisashi Iwakuma has been one of the leaders for Japan, posting a 0.73 ERA in 12 1/3 innings. Daisuke Matsuzaka has been a force on the hill as well (2-0, 1.80 ERA in 10 innings) and with the exception of one inning against South Korea, Yu Darvish has been almost untouchable.

Darvish leads the tournament with 13 strikeouts and is 1-1 with a 1.80 ERA in three appearances (two starts).

Even though Matsuzaka is widely expected to get the nod against the U.S., Hara was careful not to tip his hand too soon.

“Is there a rule that (says) I have to say,” Hara responded when asked about his starter for the semifinals. “I don’t think there is a rule like that, so I would like to refrain from mentioning the name.”

Offense has gotten the job done for South Korea, which ranks fourth in the tournament with 40 runs scored.

Lee Bum Ho is leading the team with a .375 average and three home runs, while Kim Tae Kyun is the team leader with nine RBIs and is batting .364 with a pair of homers.

They will face a powerful opponent in Venezuela in the first semifinal.

“Many of them are major leaguers,” South Korea manager Kim In Sik said. “Their lineup and pitchers are very strong. Also each of them has a very important position on their major league team.”

Major League Baseball’s popularity may come back to haunt Venezuela as the Koreans have seen video of many of the Venezuelan players.

“From April until October, everyday we watch the major league teams playing,” Kim said. “We have seen them many times. We know which player specializes in what and so on, but we don’t know everyone in detail.”

Should Japan and Korea both win, they will meet for a fifth and final time during the WBC to decide to 2009 champion in an all-Asia final.

“There is a possibility we may face each other in the final round,” Hara said. “Of course Japan has to beat the U.S. team in the semifinals and that is something we have to focus on.”