After facing Australia in a pair of exhibitions, Samurai Japan is in Tokyo with two big wins and two nagging questions before the start of the WBC.
Japan will make its Tokyo Dome debut on Saturday against the Japan Series champion Seibu Lions and faces the Central League champion Yomiuri Giants the following day, looking to build upon a decent showing against Australia at Kyocera Dome in Osaka.
Forced to come from behind on consecutive nights, Japan routed the mistake-prone Aussies 8-2 on Tuesday and 11-2 on Wednesday.
Star pitchers Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka, however, provided manager Tatsunori Hara with a little worry after shaky starts.
Darvish lasted just 1 2/3 innings on Tuesday after walking two batters and hitting another to load the bases in the second. Darvish then gave up an infield single before leaving the game.
The Hokkaido Nippon Ham ace seemed to struggle with the WBC ball as a few of his pitches simply got away from him.
Matsuzaka couldn’t make it out of the second either, surrendering two runs on five hits in 1 2/3 innings.
The pitchers that relieved them pitched as expected, but Japan will need its top two hurlers in form when facing stiffer competition.
While Japan’s top two arms faltered, Hisashi Iwakuma and Toshiya Sugiuchi shined in relief. Iwakuma inherited a bases-loaded situation from Darvish in the second inning on Tuesday and, after getting out of the jam, allowed just one runner in 3 1/3 innings.
“I never took the mound like that before,” Iwakuma told Kyodo News after the game. “But I kept my calm and got into my own rhythm.”
A 21-game winner for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2008, Iwakuma is expected to be the third starter behind Darvish and Matsuzaka.
Sugiuchi provided the encore in the second game. Showing off his changeup, the left-hander struck out the first five batters he faced and retired all seven after relieving Dice-K.
“I was very satisfied with my performance,” Sugiuchi told reporters. “Without that changeup, I can’t hold the opponent. I have confidence I can use it in the real games.”
As its final preparation for the Classic, Japan will now face the NPB’s best in a pair of warmups.
It’s a fitting final sendoff because much of Japan’s roster is combined of current or former Lions and Giants.
Seibu has three current players on the WBC roster (pitcher Hideaki Wakui, and infielders Yasuyuki Kataoka and Hiroyuki Nakajima) and Matsuzaka is a former Lions pitcher.
The Giants had the most players named to the squad with pitchers Tetsuya Utsumi and Tetsuya Yamaguchi joining catcher Shinnosuke Abe, infielder Michihiro Ogasawara and outfielder Yoshiyuki Kamei. Additionally, Hara is the Kyojin’s current manager.
After the final exhibition, the WBC’s double-elimination Pool A (Asia Round) begins at 6:30 p.m. on March 5 when Japan faces China followed by South Korea against Taiwan on March 6.
If the favorites prevail, Japan and South Korea, the last two winners in major international competition (the 2006 WBC and 2008 Olympics) would meet in an early showdown on March 7.
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