Kenta Kurihara was with Samurai Japan for just two games at the World Baseball Classic.

Despite it’s brevity, that stint with the world champions may make all the difference for the Hiroshima Carp star this season.

Rarely seen without a smile on his face before or since the WBC, Kurihara has burst out of the gates for the Carp in 2009. The first baseman has opened the year batting .474 with two home runs and nine RBIs in the Carp’s first five games (through Wednesday).

Since returning from the WBC, Kurihara has said the pressure of the do-or-die format in the WBC semifinals and final gave him valuable experience on how he plans to approach the game.

Getting the chance to watch Japanese baseball’s best working as a unit up-close- and-personal has also likely given him many tales to relay to his Carp teammates.

This season could turn out to be a critical one for Kurihara. The 27-year-old is expected to be the star attraction on a team moving into a brand new stadium and expected to compete for a spot in the Central League Climax Series.

If recent history is any example Kurihara could be on track for a big season for Hiroshima.

He’s improved in each of the last three years and batted .332 with 23 home runs and 103 RBIs in 2008. During that three-year span he also saw increases in slugging (.507, in 2006, .512, in 2007 and .515 in 2008) and on-base percentage (.330, .361, .389).

Kurihara was the Carp’s corner infield backup from 2004-2006, splitting limited time at first and third base before taking over the first-base job in 2006.

He played his first full season at the position in 2007, posting a .994 fielding percentage. He was impressive at the plate that season as well batting .310 with 25 homers and 92 RBIs.

He spent most of those years playing second fiddle to first baseman Takahiro Arai, who was the Carp’s main offensive weapon. Arai’s departure to the Hanshin Tigers last year allowed the easygoing Kurihara to blossom into the team’s bona-fide star last season.

Now surrounded by youngsters coming into their prime and veterans that can still contribute, Kurihara is the centerpiece of a team that could be the surprise of the Japanese baseball season.

Two games in the WBC have given Kurihara a killer instinct and have made him savor each at-bat maybe more than ever before.

If he can take that into the rest of the season, those two games in March could lead to the Carp playing at least a few games in October.

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