LOS ANGELES — Before Japan can again crown itself the best baseball team in the world, it will have to defeat the country that created the game on its own turf.
Samurai Japan and the United States hit the ground running during their workouts at Dodger Stadium on Friday in preparation for the semifinal round of the World Baseball Classic.
Japan will face the U.S. in Sunday’s semifinal, while South Korea and Venezuela open the round on Saturday.
“One of the objectives we have been aiming for is playing with the American major leaguers,” Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said.
“So we’re excited about the fact that we can play with them.”
Japan is out to defend the title it won in 2006, while the Americans have already bettered their performance in the last tournament. The U.S. was eliminated in the second round of the inaugural WBC, with Japan moving on due to a tiebreaker, despite having lost to the Americans.
“I never try to look at things as revenge,” U.S. shortstop Derek Jeter said.
“Even if we were to win the first tournament, this time you’re still trying to win. So I don’t think you try to win more just because you lost three years ago.”
Daisuke Matsuzaka will get the start for Japan against the Americans. Matsuzaka has pitched for the Boston Red Sox over the past two seasons and should be familiar with the U.S. lineup.
Many of the American players, especially New York Yankees captain Jeter, are also familiar with Matsuzaka from his time in the major leagues.
“We face him all the time,” Jeter said, referring to the numerous games the Red Sox and Yankees play each season.
“Playing Boston 20 games a year, we see him all the time, so I’m familiar with what he throws.”
The American squad plans to counter with Houston Astros hurler Roy Oswalt. The righty was 17-10 for the Astros in 2008, shaking off a rough beginning by finishing the season 13-6 over his final 21 games.
Oswalt started for the U.S. in an elimination game against the Netherlands on March 15, tossing four shutout innings and striking out five. Oswalt is 1-0 with a 3.52 ERA in two appearances in the WBC.
The Americans chose Oswalt over Jake Peavy, who will start on Monday should the U.S. advance to the final. Peavy was expected to start the semifinals, but manager Davey Johnson had a change of heart.
“I think pitch count and where they are at in spring training (factored into the decision),” Johnson said.
“And Roy seemed to be a little farther along than Jake. Either choice was fine with me.”
In the first semifinal, the Koreans face a great challenge in the high-powered Venezuelan offense, which manager Kim In Sik praised before his team’s workout.
“Of course their players are playing in the major leagues,” Kim said. “I believe most of their players are like that. I would say we may be slightly lower in terms of caliber (of play). But we will work hard and it’s going to be a very arduous (path) to the end.”
South Korea knows all about Venezuela’s big leaguers, but first baseman Kim Tae Kyun has turned heads with his play as well.
“I saw the Korean games, and offensively we really need to be aware of the fourth batter (Kim Tae Kyun), he is very strong,” Venezuelan manager Luis Sojo said. “I think he is going through a very good offensive moment. When a strong man is going through a good spell, we need to be aware.”
Only Japan has beaten the South Koreans thus far, and Sojo acknowledges his team faces a tough task.
“Basically, (from) what I saw on the videos of Korea, I was very impressed,” Sojo said. Melvin (Mora) said these guys do not know how to give up, they play ball and we respect that.”