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With members of the royal family watching, Japan’s home run king was downright regal.

Shuichi Murata’s two-run homer was the highlight of a three-run third as Japan defeated China 4-0 in the opening game of the World Baseball Classic on Thursday in front of 43,428 fans at Tokyo Dome.

Murata, who narrowly missed hitting a three-run shot in the first inning, kept the ball in fair territory in the third against starter Li Chenhao.

“It was a fork ball and I was able to pick it up nicely,” Murata said. “I feel relieved that it made it into the stands even though I caught it a bit off-balance.”

Norichika Aoki did his part at the plate as well, going 2-for-4 to finish as the only Japanese player with multiple hits. Kosuke Fukudome was on base for most of the game, drawing walks in each of his four plate appearances.

Ichiro Suzuki didn’t fare nearly as well, continuing a prolonged slump with a 0-for-5 outing. The Seattle Mariners star has struggled throughout Japan’s six exhibition contests and has yet to show the form that made him an MLB All-Star.

Sadaharu Oh, who managed Japan to the 2006 title, was in attendance for the game which was the first of the 2009 tournament. Japan is attempting to win back-to-back titles and erase the sting of a disappointing run in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Yu Darvish threw four efficient innings, striking out three and allowing no runs or hits to earn the win in his first WBC start. Darvish was relieved at the start of the fifth after 46 pitches, making the Hokkaido Nippon Ham star eligible to pitch again in the Tokyo round.

“Our pitching staff, especially our starting pitcher Darvish, pitched great,” manager Tatsunori Hara said. “I am so proud of him. Pitching is always the key to the game. If we don’t give up any runs, that is the shortcut to victory.”

WBC rules stipulate that pitchers who throw more than 50 pitches must rest four days before their next start, while pitchers throwing over 30 require one day off.

“I think it was good,” Darvish said of his performance. “It was good that I could complete four innings with so few pitches.”

Expected to win in a rout, Japan managed only four runs and five hits against a surprisingly decent Chinese staff.

“When you face that lineup and give up only five hits, obviously the one big hit, I think you’ve pitched a good ball game,” China manager Terry Collins said.

The win leaves Japan one victory away from advancing to the second round in San Diego. Japan’s next opponent will be either South Korea or Taiwan in the third game of the Tokyo round on Saturday night.

Japan can expect a tougher challenge in its second game, especially should they face the Koreans.

South Korea beat Japan in the Olympics behind Japanese nemesis Kim Kwang Huyn, who is expected to pitch Saturday if the Koreans slip past Taiwan.

“In this tournament there is a rule that if we win the first game, our next game is more important,” Hara said. “That’s how we see the rules. We won, and our second game will be against the winner of the next game. So we will do our best in our second game.”

China entered the game looking for its first win in WBC play after notching its first international victory during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

The Chinese kept the game from getting out of hand early, retiring four consecutive batters with runners in scoring position in the first two innings.

Japan broke a scoreless deadlock in the bottom of the third when centerfielder Jia Delong’s error on an Aoki single allowed Hiroyuki Nakajima to score from second. Murata’s shot to right made the score 3-0 later in the inning.

Japan added a run in the sixth on a balk by China reliever Sun Guoqiang which allowed Fukudome to score.

The World Baseball Classic resumes on Friday when South Korea takes on Taiwan at Tokyo Dome with the first pitch scheduled for 6 p.m.

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