Major League Baseball stars Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka headline a host of players revealed as the primary candidates to play for Japan in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, it was announced on Monday.

“Since I’ve become the manager of ‘Samurai Japan,’ we’ve received the support of all Japanese players playing both in Japan and outside Japan, and have selected these members after consulting former players and coaches,” Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said during a press conference at a Tokyo hotel.

“I believe these guys are blessed with heart, technique, physical abilities and have fighting spirit. That’s why we chose them.”

Seven major league players were named on the 34-player list which also includes NPB stars such as Hokkaido Nippon Ham’s Yu Darvish, Japan Series MVP Takayuki Kishi of the Saitama Seibu Lions and Toyko Yakult Swallows outfielder Norichika Aoki.

“In many ways, they’ve got experience, and I expect them to bring great power to the team,” Hara said of the major leaguers. “But under the name of ‘Samurai Japan,’ there is no difference between those playing in Japan and those playing in the major leagues.”

The tournament will begin on March 5 when Japan, the defending WBC champion, takes on China at Tokyo Dome.

The WBC will once again consist of four-separate four-team pools, which will be held in Tokyo, Mexico City, Toronto and San Juan.

The Tokyo round will feature the winners of the last two major international baseball competitions in South Korea, which won the gold medal in the Beijing Olympics and Japan, winner of the previous WBC.

The top two teams in each pool advance to the second round which consists of a pair of four team pools. The second-round winners advance to the semifinals on March 21 and 22. The final will be held on March 23.

One of the new wrinkles to the format this season is that teams that advance from the second round will cross over for the semifinals and face opponents from the other side of the bracket.

The biggest change, however, is the introduction of the double-elimination format in the first two rounds. The last edition’s opening stages were played using a round-robin format, which caused some controversy and confusion when Japan was allowed to advance to the semifinals — despite losing twice — due to a series of tiebreakers.

Japan went on to defeat South Korea in the semifinals before beating Cuba in the final.

“We felt that it was necessary to have advancement decided on the field rather than through a series of complex tie breakers,” WBC Asian representative Jim Small said. “We feel this better serves the event.”

Met with initial uncertainty, the first WBC turned out to be a success in 2006. Now that it’s a known commodity, the organizers are hoping to build upon that success this time around.

“Three years ago we were having an event nobody knew anything about,” Small said. “Now we have a significant event. That’s gratifying.”

Organizers are also likely hoping next year’s WBC can help the campaign to get baseball back into the Olympics in time for the 2016 Games. The sport was dropped from the program for the 2012 Games in London.

“It’s showing people around the world that baseball is not just an American sport,” Small said. “It’s an American sport that’s played all around the world.

Japan’s 2009 WBC preliminary candidates

Pitchers — Daisuke Matsuzaka (Boston Red Sox), Hiroki Kuroda (Los Angeles Dodgers), Takashi Saito (formerly of the Los Angeles Dodgers), Takayuki Kishi (Seibu Lions), Hideaki Wakui (Seibu Lions), Satoshi Komatsu (Orix Buffaloes), Yu Darvish (Nippon Ham Fighters), Shunsuke Watanabe (Lotte Marines), Masahiro Tanaka (Rakuten Eagles), Hisashi Iwakuma (Rakuten Eagles), Takahiro Mahara (Softbank Hawks), Tsuyoshi Wada (Softbank Hawks), Toshiya Sugiuchi (Softbank Hawks), Tetsuya Utsumi (Yomiuri Giants), Tetsuya Yamaguchi (Yomiuri Giants), Kyuji Fujikawa (Hanshin Tigers)

Catchers — Kenji Jojima (Seattle Mariners), Toru Hosokawa (Seibu Lions), Shinnosuke Abe (Yomiuri Giants), Yoshiyuki Ishihara (Hiroshima Carp)

Infielders — Akinori Iwamura (Tampa Bay Rays), Hiroyuki Nakajima (Seibu Lions), Yasuyuki Kataoka (Seibu Lions), Nobuhiko Matsunaka (Softbank Hawks), Munenori Kawasaki (Softbank Hawks), Michihiro Ogasawara (Yomiuri Giants), Kenta Kurihara (Hiroshima Carp), Shuichi Murata (Yokohama BayStars)

Outfielders — Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle Mariners), Kosuke Fukudome (Chicago Cubs), Atsunori Inaba (Nippon Ham Fighters), Yoshiyuki Kamei (Yomiuri Giants), Norichika Aoki (Yakult Swallows), Seichi Uchikawa (Yokohama BayStars)

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