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02/24/09 6:59 PM EST

Japan paces Classic's Pool A pack

Title defense begins vs. China, Chinese Taipei and Korea in opening round

A quick look at Pool A for the 2009 World Baseball Classic, and one question jumps out at you, no matter what language you speak: Can the Japanese team do it again?

It will be tougher this year without key pitcher Koji Uehara, who has committed to staying in Spring Training now that he's made it to America and signed with the Baltimore Orioles.

Meanwhile, Hideki Matsui and Hideki Okajima are absent from the roster, as is the 2006 manager, Japanese legend Sadaharu Oh, who is too ill to take the reins of the defending champs.

But the determination, discipline and depth of the 2006 team prevailed, and these shouldn't be underestimated or overlooked heading into the '09 rendition of this hardball showcase.

Japan has plenty of international experience, a rabid fan base ready to root them all the way back to the U.S. and the first Classic trophy on the mantel.

Will they get No. 2? Here's a rundown of the Japanese players and the three Pool A contenders trying to unseat them as champions.

'06 result: 15th place, with an 0-3 record, did not qualify for Round 2
MLB players: Three players affiliated with Major League clubs
Key players: Lingfen Sun, Yufeng Zhang, Fei Feng

China is one of the youngest baseball countries in the tournament, and it showed in 2006, but it improved to eighth out of 12 clubs as the host country in the Beijing Games.

The Chinese will be up against it once again, but at least they will bring a bit of experience to the table in the form of returning Classic players Lingfen, who led off in the Olympics, and Fei, who batted third in Beijing and was on the roster for the 2006 Classic but didn't see game action.

'06 result: 12th place, with a 1-2 record, did not qualify for Round 2
MLB players: Nine players affiliated with Major League clubs
Key players: Chih-Hsien Chiang, Fu-Te Ni, Che-Hsuan Lin

2009 Rosters

There's some talent here, even if Yankees horse Chien-Ming Wang isn't joining the club for this go-round.

Second baseman Chiang hit sixth for this club in the 2008 Olympics, and Che-Hsuan Lin, a center fielder in the Red Sox organization, also took the field in Beijing. Meanwhile, lefty pitcher Fu-Te Ni signed with the Detroit Tigers in January after being courted by several MLB teams. His nickname back home? "The Taiwanese Okajima."

First baseman and Olympics cleanup man Cheng-Min Peng should help the offense, too, for a country that continues to get better on the global scene every year.

'06 result: Won the inaugural World Baseball Classic championship with a 5-3 record, beating Cuba, 10-6, in the final
MLB players: Five
Key players: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ichiro Suzuki, Akinori Iwamura

The Japanese still have the Most Valuable Player from the first Classic in the man they call Dice-K. Matsuzaka went 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA in the 2006 tournament and will be joined by Ichiro, along with Major League countrymen Kosuke Fukudome of the Chicago Cubs and Kenji Johjima of the Seattle Mariners.

And let's not forget Iwamura, who got a taste of the highest-pressure baseball in the world last year while making it to the World Series with the upstart Tampa Bay Rays.

'06 result: Advanced to the semifinals with tournament-best 6-1 record, lost to Japan
MLB players: One
Key players: Shin-Soo Choo, Dae Hoe Lee, Jong Wook Lee

Slugger Seung-Yeop Lee, who led the 2006 Classic with five home runs, will not participate, but the Koreans, who followed their solid showing in the inaugural version of this tournament by winning the gold medal in Beijing, should have plenty of firepower.

A good portion of that should come from Korea's only big leaguer, Cleveland's Choo, who torched left-handed pitching last year. Meanwhile, the team brings back a host of its Olympic stars, including designated hitter Dae Ho Lee, leadoff man Jong Wook Lee, and center fielder and No. 3 batter Jin Young Lee.

Doug Miller is reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.