WBC stars Darvish, Iwakuma start off 2009 season

Updated: April 2, 2009, 4:26 PM ET
Associated Press

TOKYO -- Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma already helped post a huge win for their country in the World Baseball Classic. Back home, the aces will face each other Friday when the 2009 season opens in Japan.

The upcoming year in Japan features a few newcomers, with former Mets infielder Edgardo Alfonzo and former Yankees pitcher Darrell Rasner joining the mix. Manager Bobby Valentine is set for his final season and Tadahito Iguchi returns.

Perhaps the biggest name of all -- Sadaharu Oh -- will be absent. The home run king stepped down as manager of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks because of health reasons after the 2008 season.

Darvish and Iwakuma are scheduled to be the starting pitchers in the Pacific League opener at Sapporo Dome.

Darvish was the winning pitcher when Japan beat South Korea 5-3 in the WBC championship game. He relieved Iwakuma, who gave up just two runs on four hits over 7 2-3 innings at Dodger Stadium.

The 27-year-old Iwakuma, who won 21 games last season for the Rakuten Eagles, attracted the interest of major league scouts at the WBC and will be looking to try to improve his team's fifth-place finish.

The 22-year-old Darvish, entering his fifth season as a member of the Nippon Ham Fighters, also made a name for his himself at the WBC and will be on the radar of major league teams for years to come. Widely regarded as the best pitcher in Japan, Darvish had 16 wins last season for the Fighters.

Valentine enters his last season with the Chiba Lotte Marines. They decided not to offer him a contract extension after his current four-year deal expires at the end of 2009 season.

Valentine, who has 1,117 wins in the major leagues with the Texas Rangers and New York Mets, is going into his seventh year managing in Japan. His Marines finished fourth in the six-team league last season.

Iguchi, who spent four seasons in the major leagues as an infielder with the Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres, returns to Japan with the Marines.

With a lineup featuring Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Cabrera, Greg LaRocca and Jose Fernandez, the Orix Buffaloes will be boast one of the most feared lineups in Japan, provided the aging sluggers stay uninjured. The four have combined for a total of 1,014 home runs over their careers in Japan.

Rhodes has been in Japan so long -- 12 seasons -- he's no longer considered a foreign player.

The Seibu Lions will be looking to defend their Japan Series championship with a team that includes former major leaguer Hiram Bocachica and WBC standout Hiroyuki Nakajima.

In the Central League, Alfonzo joins a Yomiuri Giants team many expect to win it all.

The 35-year-old Alfonzo will team up with 2008 league Most Valuable Player Alex Ramirez, who hit 45 homers last season along with a 125 RBIs and a .319 batting average.

The Hanshin Tigers are hoping the recovery of a Colonel Sanders statue from a river in downtown Osaka will lift a 24-year curse on the team, which hasn't won the Japan Series since 1985, when overzealous fans tossed a statue of the Colonel into the Dotonbori River.

Workers pulled the statue honoring the Kentucky Fried Chicken king from the river during construction work in March, just in time for the start of a new season.

If the Colonel can't lift Hanshin's long championship drought, Tigers fans hope that former major leaguer Kevin Mench can. Mench joined the Tigers in the offseason after seven seasons with the Texas Rangers, Milwaukee Brewers and Toronto Blue Jays.

The Chunichi Dragons lost star pitcher Kenshin Kawakami, who is now playing for the Atlanta Braves, and slugger Tyrone Woods. American Marty Brown returns for his fourth season managing the Hiroshima Carp, who move into a new 30,000-seat downtown stadium.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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