Once again, in the Asian round of the World Baseball Classic we have China in the role of whipping boys.
After getting thumped 9-2 and 11-1 on consecutive days over the weekend in tuneup games against the Yomiuri Giants and Seibu Lions, respectively, manager Terry Collins and his team certainly don't expect things to get any easier when they open the WBC against defending champion Japan on Thursday night at Tokyo Dome.
"This isn't a football game, so there's no real strategy," said Collins, in his first stint with China after previously skippering the Anaheim Angels and Orix Buffaloes. "Baseball is pretty basic. You've gotta execute and you've gotta execute your pitches. You can't throw fastballs down the middle against Japan or you're gonna get thumped."
Collins, who left the Buffaloes a couple of months into his second season with the club last May, said he really hasn't seen enough of his players to make a qualified assessment of their talent. He also said that while he may not have many polished baseball players on his club right now, he does have plenty of talented athletes.
"They need to get a feel for the game, get some legs under the thing," said Collins. "After they play in the WBC, they go back and play their season, which is only 20 games. They play more exhibition games than that here in Japan. But we do have some skilled athletes, I can tell you that."
In the inaugural WBC in 2006, China, then managed by Jim Lefebvre, another American with experience in both Major League Baseball and Japan, was outscored 40-6 in three games against the same clubs they will face in Group A this time around--Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
But while Team China is not harboring any illusions going into Thursday's game, they certainly don't plan on simply rolling over and playing dead.
"We've gotta be aggressive," said shortstop Ray Chang, a Chinese-American from the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization brought in to bolster the squad. "We can't be passive, plain and simple. They're gonna come out swinging. We put seven hits on the board against Seibu and they beat Japan (7-2 in a warm-up game on Saturday), so we've gotta come out swinging, too, it's as simple as that.
"We do have some talent and I think we can surprise some people," added Chang, a Kansas City native who doubled in China's lone run against Seibu. "Japan is Japan, they're the defending champs, but we're definitely up for the challenge."
Right-hander Lu Jiangang, formerly in the Chunichi Dragons system, is expected to get the start for China on Thursday. In the 9-2 loss to Yomiuri, Lu held the Giants to one run over three frames.
"I always want to show what I can do out there, so I'll give 100 percent (if I get the start)," said Lu. "I'll just try to get them out hitter-by-hitter."
As usual, Japan manager Tatsunori Hara had not revealed his Game 1 starter, although it is unlikely to be Boston Red Sox 18-game winner Daisuke Matsuzaka, who tweaked a calf muscle in Sunday's 2-1, 10-inning win over the Giants. The injury is not serious, however.
On Saturday, the loser of the Japan-China game plays the loser of Friday's South Korea-Taiwan matchup in the early game, with the two winners meeting in the nightcap. The double-elimination format continues through Monday with all games at Tokyo Dome. The top two teams move on to Round 2 in San Diego with the final slated for Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on March 23.