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03/20/09 3:40 AM ET
Japan scurrying to replace Murata
First baseman lost for tournament as semifinal with US looms
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
SAN DIEGO -- Team Japan wanted to get through the final game of Pool 1 in the World Baseball Classic on Thursday night at PETCO Park without an injury. It didn't happen. Japanese first baseman Shuichi Murata pulled his right hamstring. And manager Tatsunori Hara called it a "major injury." Murata is finished for the tournament, which continues on Saturday night at Dodger Stadium with the Korea-Venezuela semifinal game at 9 ET. The Japanese play Team USA on Sunday night at 8 ET and they've already petitioned Nippon Professional Baseball to replace Murata with Kenta Kurihara, a corner infielder from the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. "[Murata's] not in condition to be able to play," Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said after his club clinched the top seed from the Pool 1 bracket by defeating rival Korea, 6-2. "I did talk to Murata, and he did a good job. However, we have important games left, and he has to be replaced. And I did talk with him about that. "Murata was very sad about that. He said he was sorry about this, about what had happened. Now he has to leave the [tournament]." Murata singled to open the fourth and obviously strained the muscle just before he reached first base, pulling up and grabbing at the back of his right leg. He was assisted off the field. Hara said he immediately reached out to NPB officials for Kurihara because "I had to look for somebody who could replace [Murata], and Kurihara is the only one" listed on Japan's 45-man provisional roster. The Japanese had just gotten back shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, who missed their first two games of the bracket because of a severe bout with the flu. Murata was one of Japan's key offensive players, having played in all seven games, batting .320 (8-for-25) with two homers and seven RBIs. That's half of the homers Japan has hit as a team in the first two rounds. The other two were hit by Kenji Johjima and Seiichi Uchikawa, who homered against Korea in the second inning on Thursday night. The Japanese are batting .286, sixth among the 16 teams that started the tournament and third among the remaining four teams. But their pitching has been fabulous with a Classic second-best 1.20 ERA, eight earned runs in seven games, including none in two wins over Cuba. The Dominicans, who didn't make it out of the first round, are the only staff better, having allowed just five earned runs in three games (an 0.31 ERA). The Japanese go into a possible final two games with ace Daisuke Matsuzaka set up to pitch against the U.S. on Sunday and hard-throwing 22-year-old Yu Darvish to start the finals, if Japan gets that far, on Monday evening. In the wings as a reliever is Hisashi Iwakuma, the right-hander who won 21 games in Japan last season and was on the mound Wednesday night when the Japanese clinched a semifinal berth by eliminating Cuba, 5-0. Iwakuma, the third best starter on the team, won the Sawamura Award last year as the top pitcher in the Japan leagues. That's comparable to winning the Cy Young Award in the Major Leagues. Though Hara wasn't ready to formally announce his Sunday starter on Thursday night, he sidestepped a question from the Japanese media about skipping Matsuzaka of the Red Sox, because the right-hander might be too familiar to a U.S. team comprised entirely of Major Leaguers. Matsuzaka revved up the Japanese in the second round this past Sunday when he pitched six innings of five-hit ball and whiffed eight in a 6-0 victory over the Cubans. The Most Valuable Player of Japan's title victory in the '06 Classic, Matsuzaka is 5-0 with 1.57 ERA in Classic play, including two huge wins over Cuba. "We have a Japanese style and we're going to stick to that," Hara said. "Just because the opponent is such, I'm not going to think about changing. So we are going to do our best within our style." Murata is the only player the Japanese have lost to injury in the first two rounds of the Classic, as opposed to the U.S., which lost Chipper Jones, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Matt Lindstrom during the second round alone. David Wright and Ryan Braun also go into the semifinal matchup against Japan ailing. And Jake Peavy, the projected U.S. starter against Matsuzaka, heads into the game with a 14.40 ERA. Hara, though, continued to say on Thursday night that he can't dwell upon what's happening with the other team. "I keep repeating myself," he said. "Rather than worry about the other team, I need to concentrate on our own team, on our baseball. In that sense, everyone is waiting for the best opportunity. That is what we are all focusing on right now."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.