Where are those darned Aussies when you need them?
After cruising past an undermanned Australian team in a couple of World Baseball Classic warm-up games in Osaka, manager Tatsunori Hara's Samurai Japan ran into some tougher competition when the team moved up to Tokyo--namely the Japan Series champion Seibu Lions and his own Central League winners, the Yomiuri Giants.
After falling to the Leos 7-2 on Saturday, Team Japan was locked in a tight battle with the Giants on Sunday evening at Tokyo Dome. A solo home run by Japan newcomer Edgardo Alfonzo off Japan starter Toshiya Sugiuchi in the first was offset by a Kenji Jojima RBI single in the fifth as the teams were tied through 7 innings at press time.
With the real thing starting in a few days and defending WBC champion Japan having played its final tuneup game, Hara is hoping the same fate that befell Senichi Hoshino's Olympic team at the Beijing Olympics won't greet his boys in the WBC. After getting stomped at Tokyo Dome in their final pre-Olympic warmup game, Japan played poorly in Beijing and finished out of the medals.
Of most concern to Team Japan is the play of Seattle Mariners superstar Ichiro, the man who inspired Japan to the title in 2006. While he also started slowly three years ago before picking it up when the chips were down, so far in the leadup to this WBC Ichiro has hit an anemic 3-for-22 (.136) through five games and seven innings as of Sunday night.
Ichiro told reporters a couple of days ago that his heart was "burning" with anticipation ahead of the WBC. Right now, he's probably giving Hara and his teammates a massive case of heartburn as well.
On Sunday, Hara moved Ichiro up from third in the lineup to his natural leadoff spot, to no avail. In his first four at-bats, Ichiro grounded out three times--once with two men on and two out in a 1-1 game--and flew out lamely to left.
Another concern coming into Sunday's game was the state of ace Daisuke Matsuzaka. The right-hander struggled mightily in his previous start against a team of Australian no-names last Wednesday, but he showed definite signs of improvement Sunday. The Boston Red Sox 18-game winner last season threw three innings in relief of Sugiuchi. He gave up just one hit and walked a pair, hardly looking like the dominating pitcher who was named MVP of the WBC in 2006 but he appears to be working himself into game shape.
Hara said ahead of Saturday's loss to Seibu that he was anxious to find out if their system was working. The jury still seems to be out on that one.
In Sunday's early game, the Lions continued to manhandle WBC clubs with an emphatic 11-1 thrashing of China's national team.
A day after embarrassing Samurai Japan, manager Hisanobu Watanabe's Lions out-hit the Chinese 14-7 to pick up where they left off after beating the Giants in seven games in November, despite having middle infielders Hiroyuki Nakajima and Yasuyuki Kataoka on national duty with Team Japan.
"We've been having a good spring camp and we're very well prepared," said Watanabe, when asked about his team dispatching two WBC clubs. "Our young players have been trying to make an impression on me."