Talent unlikely to get lost in translation

Forget Hideki Matsui and Tadahito Iguchi. Japan is going places without them.

Manager Sadaharu Oh is confident the guys who did show up can do the job in the World Baseball Classic, which begins Friday at the Tokyo Dome.

Two teams from Pool A -- which also includes China, South Korea and Taiwan -- will advance to the quarterfinal round in Anaheim, Calif., on March 12, and Oh has no doubts Japan will be among the last eight in the 16-nation tournament.

"I have no worries," Oh said Sunday after Japan finally showed some offense in a 5-1 exhibition win over the Asia champion Chiba Lotte Marines. "We are not quite where we want to be, but give us time and we will be."

Although Japan's power hitters have yet to find themselves at the plate, Oh thinks this will change in Tokyo.

"Tokyo Dome is not nearly so big, and the balls fly there," Oh said after three exhibitions at the vast Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome produced just one home run. "I know when we get to Tokyo, the big hitters will feel right at home and relax. It takes a little time."

Until his big bats come around, Oh can get by on speed, deep pitching and defense.

Chief among the speed merchants is his lone major league position player, Ichiro Suzuki.

"Ichiro is an early key, setting the mood for us," said Oh, who agreed the Seattle Mariners' leadoff man was like a second manager. "When he talks, everyone listens."

With everyone in the WBC on the lookout for Ichiro, Tsuyoshi Nishioka of Chiba Lotte and No. 9 hitter Munenori Kawasaki of Oh's Fukuoka Softbank Hawks might be able to fly around the bases under the radar.

Both are slash-hitting speed burners. Nishioka led Japan's Pacific League in steals and triples in 2005, and Kawasaki led both categories in 2004.

"With guys like Kawasaki and Nishioka, we have players creating excitement and opening the door for the hitters in the middle of the lineup," Oh said.

The middle of the order is anchored by Hawks cleanup man Nobuhiko Matsunaka, who narrowly missed winning his second straight Triple Crown this year despite playing in Fukuoka's enormous yard.

Although he is Japan's No. 1 power hitter and has the stocky frame of a slugger, Matsunaka brings unmatched leadership, drive and hustle on the bases.

In this past autumn's Pacific League playoffs, keeping Matsunaka out of the picture was one pillar of Chiba Lotte manager Bobby Valentine's successful strategy vs. the Hawks. Marines pitchers worked very carefully to get him into a funk, and Valentine kept the Hawks' star from electrifying his club with a big hit by pitching around him when necessary.

"You know Matsunaka will be OK," Oh said.

Although Oh has only one major league pitcher on his roster -- Texas Rangers reliever Akinori Otsuka -- Japan is still deep in pitching talent.

Oh has six starting pitchers on his staff and likely will use two in each Pool A game for three to four innings before going to one of his six relievers.

Although his pitchers have not all found their rhythm, Oh's excellent defense will allow them a lot of room for mistakes. Both second baseman Nishioka and third baseman Toshiaki Imae, also of Chiba Lotte, can more than keep up with Ichiro in the field, and shortstop Kawasaki and several outfielders are not that far behind.

The real question for the Japanese is not how many games they will win in Tokyo but how they will keep their talent from getting lost in translation once they get to Anaheim.

"When the real thing [the WBC] starts, you will see the real thing from us, as well," Oh said. "How that will play out in the second round after a week's layoff, that is another question."

Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.