It's been three years since Japan took the international baseball world by storm, winning the first edition of the World Baseball Classic by beating powerhouse Cuba in the final.
The nation is hungry for a repeat performance and many of the core players from '06 will be back in action this March, led by Seattle Mariners star outfielder Ichiro and Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, the MVP from the inaugural event.
While experience certainly counts for something, this version of Team Japan will have to deal with something new this time around--the added weight of high expectations. The pressure to repeat--or at least give a good account of themselves--will be immense, and the Japanese team showed at the Beijing Olympics this past summer that they can be prone to melting away under the harsh glare of well-trained spotlight as they finished out of the medals.
"There is a lot more pressure," said best-selling author Robert Whiting, who has penned several books on Japanese baseball. "No one wants to repeat the embarrassment of Beijing. No one wants to end Japan's WBC title winning streak at one. That pressure is one reason, I think, why (2006 manager Sadaharu) Oh and (Olympic team manager Senichi) Hoshino turned the job down. I'm sure that (2009 manager) Tatsunori Hara would rather be doing something else--anything else."
Adding to the pressure is the fact that South Korea took gold in Beijing, and Chiba Lotte Marines skipper Bobby Valentine says that means teams will be gunning to knock Asian baseball off its perch.
"It's a must-win situation because Korea won the gold (in Beijing) and Japan are the defending WBC champs," said Valentine, who also managed the New York Mets and Texas Rangers. "Everyone will be trying to beat the Asian teams and the Japanese team will have to play their best each day. If they play together, they will win."
Once again, Japan's roster will be deep in talent. Joining Ichiro in the outfield will be Norichika Aoki of the Yakult Swallows, the best pure contact hitter in Japanese baseball with an average of .340 over the past four years.
Seibu's power-hitting shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima should anchor a solid infield that also features the Tampa Bay Rays' Akinori Iwamura and Yomiuri Giants corner infielder Michihiro Ogasawara, who hit .310 with 36 home runs this past season. There is plenty of power to spare in this group, with the Yokohama BayStars' Shuichi Murata (CL-best 46 HRs in 2008) and Kenta Kurihara of the Hiroshima Carp (23 HRs) also available to Hara.
The pitching staff should be anchored by Matsuzaka, Nippon-Ham Fighters ace Yu Darvish and Rakuten Eagles right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, a 21-game winner this past season.
But, like a hastily restored car that looks pretty impressive from 20 feet away, there may be a few dings visible when you take a closer look.
Matsuzaka, coming off a campaign in which he won 18 games for the Red Sox, had control issues all season long, so don't let his lofty win total fool ya. Factor in that major-league hitters are now much more familiar with him, and a lot of the mystique and aura that he brought to the table in '06 are no longer there.
Darvish, who is a world-beater on Japanese soil, had a horrible outing in Beijing, but at least he made the team. Team selectors were so wary of Iwakuma's tendency to come up short in big international games that they didn't even select him for the Olympics, even though he was leading the league in wins at the time.
Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Hiroki Kuroda has opted out of the team as he nurses a sore shoulder back to health and New York Yankees aging slugger Hideki Matsui will once again miss the event as he rehabs his knee, but other than that, Hara should have a healthy group heading to training camp in Miyazaki on Feb. 15, where they plan to trim the roster down to the final 28 a week later.
None of the players on the Chunichi Dragons have made themselves available for the team following the debacle in Beijing. That means middle infielders Hirokazu Ibata and Masahiro Araki, infielder-outfielder Masahiko Morino, free-agent starter Kenshin Kawakami and closer Hitoki Iwase will not be suiting up for Samurai Japan.
But Japan is not the only team that will be missing a few good men. Team USA is stocked with stars like Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, Cleveland Indians outfielder Grady Sizemore and the Red Sox's American League MVP Dustin Pedroia, but slugger Ryan Howard and pitchers Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge of the World Series-champion Phillies have turned down offers to play for their country, as have Boston starter Josh Beckett and the Texas Rangers' Josh Hamilton, among others.
WBC play gets under way at Tokyo Dome on March 5, with host Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China forming Pool A. The top two--once again expected to be Japan and South Korea--then head to San Diego for Round 2.
The semifinals and final of the 16-team tournament take place at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles from March 21-23. Unlike in 2006, the first two rounds of the tournament will be played in a double-elimination format.
Japan, the United States, Cuba and South Korea are among the favorites going in. The Alex Rodriguez-led Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Canada and Mexico all have lineups dotted with major-leaguers, so don't be surprised if they make some noise as well.