/ |

Japan ready to do whatever it takes to reach final

by Jason Coskrey

Japan’s main objective in the 2009 World Baseball Classic is to repeat as WBC champions.

Two wins shy of their goal, the Japanese are ready to do whatever it takes to make their dream a reality.

“We’re just going to play,” pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma said during the team’s practice at the MLB Urban Youth Academy on Saturday in Compton. “We only have two games left, so we’d like to do our best.”

South Korea qualified for the final with a 10-2 rout of Venezuela on Saturday and Japan is hoping to follow suit against the U.S. on Sunday.

Daisuke Matsuzaka will get the start for Japan in the semifinals and will be opposed by three-time MLB All-Star Roy Oswalt, who pitches for the Houston Astros.

“As you know, he’s always prepared in big events like this,” catcher Kenji Johjima said of Matsuzaka. “He’s always ready to go. We’ll choose what works and what doesn’t work. Hopefully, I can find the best pitch for him early in the game.”

Matsuzaka has been one of his team’s top players during the WBC and he’ll need another big performance when Japan takes on the U.S.

The WBC pitch-count limit for the semifinals and final is 100, meaning Matsuzaka could have the opportunity to take Japan deep into the game.

“If he can give his usual performance, it certainly leads to a big contribution for our team,” Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said.

Iwakuma is hoping he gets a chance to utilize the high pitch count in the final, should Japan top the U.S.

The reigning Sawamura Award winner went past the second round’s 85-pitch limit against Cuba on March 18 and is isn’t available to pitch again until the final. He’s hoping he gets to make an appearance in the final game.

“We don’t know what team we would face in the final,” Iwakuma said prior to South Korea’s win. “But since you can throw 100 pitches, I’d like to go all out.”

Matsuzaka is 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA in the WBC, defeating South Korea and Cuba. He’ll face a U.S. lineup that should have him well scouted, as many on the U.S. team have faced the Boston Red Sox star in the past.

Working in Japan’s favor is that Johjima, who plays for the Seattle Mariners, should have a good idea how to handle some of the American batters as well.

“I know many of the AL hitters,” the Seattle Mariners catcher said. “But among the NL, I haven’t seen most of them except during interleague games. So I can’t really say much about the National League players.”

Kenta Kurihara, who is replacing the injured Shuichi Murata, was also at practice. Kurihara arrived Saturday morning and took batting and fielding practice with the team.

There are few other concerns for the Japanese team physically, which Hara is grateful for.

“We can enter the game in good shape,” the manager said.

Now all the team has to do is top the Americans and Japan and South Korea will finish an impromptu best-of-five WBC series with a fifth and deciding game in the final.

“We’ll do our best,” Johjima said. “I’m sure America will do its best as well. All I can do is look up to God and pray.”