Let the games begin!
Three years after Japan's signature moment in international baseball, Samurai Japan takes the field tonight at Tokyo Dome to begin defense of their World Baseball Classic title.
First up for manager Tatsunori Hara and Samurai Japan is China, a monumental mismatch, at least on paper.
Hara announced Wednesday that he will give the ball to Nippon-Ham Fighters ace Yu Darvish against the Chinese team.
"Darvish will get the start," deadpanned Hara. "His condition has been getting better throughout the warm-up games and practices so he will start the opener. I'm excited to see him pitch."
While Darvish has been a world-beater for his Pacific League club, he struggled in the Beijing Olympics, where Japan finished out of the medals, and he also did not look sharp in a tuneup game against Australia a little over a week ago.
A start against China, which was outscored 40-6 in the first round of the WBC three years ago, could be just what the doctor ordered.
In the other dugout, China skipper Terry Collins has decided to send Li Chenhao, a 31-year-old right-hander, out to the hill.
After destroying a young Australian team in a couple of tuneup games in Osaka--despite sub-par starts by both Darvish and Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka--Hara's Japan squad has looked less than dominating against NPB opposition, losing 7-2 to the Seibu Lions and then barely beating his own Yomiuri Giants 2-1 in 10 innings.
When asked how he felt on the eve of the WBC, Hara said he found it difficult to put into words.
"My heart is calm now, but I feel there will be many waves, many ups and downs over the coming days," he said. "All I can say is that we'll go out and play hard, that's how I feel right now. Our target, of course, is to get another championship."
Hara also touched on the question of Ichiro, the Seattle Mariners superstar who was inspirational in leading Japan to the title in 2006. In six practice games leading up to Thursday's opener, however, Ichiro has just three hits in 23 at-bats for a very un-Ichiro-like .130 batting average.
Hara hardly seemed concerned on Wednesday.
"Ichiro is the team leader of Samurai Japan," said Hara, "but he's certainly not our only good player and we have plenty of guys to support him. As the team leader, however, I do expect him to step up and take charge once again, and I know our fans are expecting the same thing."
As for where he'll bat in the lineup--in the leadoff spot he has occupied most of his career or in the three-hole where he was hitting Sunday night against the Giants--Hara said that would be entirely up to hitting coach Tsutomu Ito, the former Seibu skipper.
South Korea, the other team expected to advance from the four-nation Pool A, starts its WBC campaign Friday night against Taiwan.
After putting his team through its paces in a workout at Tokyo Dome on Wednesday, South Korea manager Kim In Sik said he was not reading too much into his team's recent successes.
The Koreans beat Japan twice in the 2006 WBC before falling to their archrivals 6-0 in the semifinals and they were crowned Olympic champions this past summer in Beijing.
"We will try and build on that, but every team will be trying its best so that stuff might not mean too much," said Kim. "In 2006, we got to the semifinals, but our goal is to go even higher this time. Having said that, our primary goal right now is just to get to the second round."
They will have to do it without a couple of key players, however. Lee Seung Yeop, who led the 2006 WBC in homers (5) and RBIs (10), has elected to skip this tournament to concentrate on getting ready for this season with Yomiuri while Cleveland Indians outfielder Choo Shin Soo, the team's lone MLB player, is battling both ankle and elbow injuries and may see limited action, if he plays at all.
If things go according to form, Japan and South Korea will renew baseball hostilities Saturday night at Tokyo Dome. The top two teams in the double-elimination first round advance to the next phase in San Diego.