Japan seeking yet another WBC title

SAN FRANCISCO -- Ichiro Suzuki isn't here. Yu Darvish isn't here. Daisuke Matsuzaka isn't here (which might be a good thing given his recent ERAs).

The Italian team had more active major leaguers on its World Baseball Classic roster than the Japanese do. So did the Dutch team. Neither of which is that surprising because the Japanese team doesn't have a single current major leaguer on its roster. Former Mets/Rockies/Astros infielder Kaz Matsui is on the team, but he hasn't played a game in our major leagues in nearly three years.

No matter. While Team USA returns to Goodyear, Surprise and other exotic spring training destinations, Team Japan is here alongside McCovey Cove, looking to win the World Baseball Classic. Again.

"It's not easy to win back to back. We're going for a third straight title and there is a lot of pressure on our back,'' Japan manager Koji Yamamoto said through an interpreter. "Our goal was to get to the United States. Now that we're here, anything can happen.''

Japan won the inaugural WBC in 2006 with two then-current major leaguers -- Ichiro and reliever Akinori Otsuka, plus six future major leaguers. They won the 2009 WBC with five big leaguers (Ichiro, Dice-K, Kenji Johjima, Kosuke Fukudome and Akinori Iwamura), plus five future major leaguers, including Darvish. The active Japanese players in our major leagues declined to play in this year's WBC however, citing the reason all too familiar to American fans: spring training with their major league team was a priority.

"I knew about the situation from the get-go,'' Yamamoto said. "When I was asked to be the manager, I knew that we would have no major leaguers. That was something I just had to start off with. But going into these games and seeing these guys growing more confident, that makes me feel mentally strong.''

Unlike in the U.S., Japan had no issue with its top players in Nippon Professional Baseball declining WBC invitations. Aside from a few injured players, they almost all welcomed the chance to play for their country and show their talents to the world.

"I think it's motivating for these players now,'' Yamamoto said before Japan played an exhibition game against the San Francisco Giants in Scottsdale, Ariz., earlier this week. "They have no experience here, but a lot of interest. So hopefully this will be a good start for them to see what the major leagues are all about. If they can compete here, that becomes another challenge for them.''

Indeed. There may be no current major leaguers on the team, but there are probably future big leaguers, such as right-hander Kenta Maeda, who will start Sunday's semifinal game against Puerto Rico, and Masahiro Tanaka, who probably would start Tuesday's final should Japan advance.

Maeda pitched a no-hitter last season en route to a 14-7 record and a 1.53 ERA for the Hiroshima Carp. He struck out 171 batters in 206 1/3 innings. He is 2-0 in this WBC and has allowed just three baserunners -- two hits and one walk -- while striking out 15 in 10 innings. If he pitches well Sunday and has a good season this year, Hiroshima could be able to maximize its posting fee for him this winter.

When Maeda, who will turn 25 in April, was asked at Saturday's news conference whether he has considered playing in the United States, Yamamota turned to the pitcher and said with a smile, "Answer wisely.'' Which Maeda did, saying, "That's really hard for me to answer, so please let me say just no comment. But I'm delighted that I could pitch on the major league grounds here.''

Tanaka, 24, was 10-4 with a 1.87 ERA for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles last year. The previous year he was 19-5 with a 1.27 ERA while striking struck out 241 and walking only 27 in 226 1/3 innings. He, too, could be posted this winter. When he pitched against the Giants on Thursday, the stands were filled with major league scouts.

Japan beat the Netherlands in Tokyo on Tuesday, then arrived in Phoenix on Wednesday for its exhibition games. When the team arrived at San Francisco's AT&T Park on Saturday, the players took photos of the field and several pitchers rushed to the walkway atop the right field wall to gaze at McCovey Cove, where Central League MVP Shinnosuke Abe was launching batting practice home runs.

Puerto Rico, meanwhile, arrived Saturday night after flying from Miami, where it lost to the Dominican Republic earlier in the day and had defeated the United States the night before.

Asked whether his team was at a disadvantage because Japan has had several days off to rest its team and pitchers, Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said it was, "But we were also at a disadvantage against Venezuela and a disadvantage when we got here. So the players and the team have already learned how to play in these types of situations, and we are still here among the first four.''

Puerto Rico is scheduled to start 28-year-old Mario Santiago, who has a career record of 36-51 with a 4.04 ERA in the minor leagues.

Japan may be two victories from its third WBC championship, but it was touch-and-go whether the country was even going to participate this year. Negotiations over the distribution of tournament revenue dragged on until virtually the last minute before Japan finally agreed to play.

That hasn't hurt either its play or the fans' interest. One third of all TVs in use in Japan during last week's second round in Tokyo were tuned to the WBC. Ratings increased when Japan rallied to beat Chinese Taipei. More than 100 Japanese media swarmed the field and swelled the press box for the exhibition game against the Giants. Even more media were credentialed for the next day's exhibition game against the Cubs. (There were no more than four reporters from the Netherlands on hand Saturday.)

Sunday's game will be played at 10 a.m. local time on Monday morning in Japan. About as much work is expected to get done in Japan as gets done in the United States during the first days of the NCAA tournament.

"I think the first event in 2006 and 2009 helped us a lot,'' Yamamoto said of Japanese fan passion for the WBC. "That united the nation. All the fans are excited about it. It's a bigger event because of that.''

Of course, added interest means added pressure.

"We only have two more games to play and we feel a lot of pressure on our backs,'' Matsui said. "But we're facing the right direction right now and we feel we're going the right way. All we can do is play to our best and see what happens.''