3/1/2013 11:39 A.M. ET
Defending champs Japan ready for Brazil in Classic
Veteran Japanese squad to face Classic newcomers in first-round action
By Jason Coskrey / Special to MLB.com
FUKUOKA, Japan -- Two-time defending champion Japan wrapped up its preparations for the 2013 World Baseball Classic in good spirits on a cool, rainy Friday afternoon in Fukuoka.
"It finally starts tomorrow," Japan manager Koji Yamamoto said. "I'm hoping our guys are able to do what they usually do."
The Japanese team worked out for about two hours at Fukuoka Institute of Technology on the eve of its opening game against Brazil on Saturday. Before that, Brazil spent a couple of hours putting the finishing touches on its own game plan.
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The Brazilians, managed by Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, will be competing in the Classic for the first time, having upset Panama in the qualifying round to reach this stage.
They couldn't have asked for a tougher opening opponent.
"The Japanese team, as expected, is a very solid team," Larkin said. "Good pitching, a lot of team speed, a very well-coached team, a good, disciplined defensive team. The strategy is for us to just go out and execute our game plan. Go out there and pay particular attention to the small details, and try to win every single pitch."
Japan is expected to send Masahiro Tanaka to the hill in the opener. The right-hander is one of the top pitchers in Japan, but he is coming off subpar performances in exhibition games against Nippon Professional Baseball's Hiroshima Carp and Australia.
"No matter how I pitch, I want to hold the opponent to zero runs," Tanaka said. "I want to be aggressive and pitch at a faster pace."
Opposing him will be Rafael Fernandes, a member of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows who should be somewhat familiar with the Japanese team.
"We feel that he gives us our best opportunity to win the game," Larkin said. "He is ready for the challenge. It's a great opportunity for him. He's very proud to represent our country of Brazil in the game against Japan."
Fernandes isn't the only Brazilian with a working knowledge of Japan. A number of Brazil's players, most notably the Swallows' Yuichi Matsumoto, play in either Nippon Professional Baseball or the Japanese Industrial League.
It remains to be seen how much of an advantage that will be.
"I think I've only faced Yuichi during interleague play," said Tanaka, who pitches for the Pacific League's Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. "So they don't know me very well, do they?"
One question mark for Japan is the health of captain Shinnosuke Abe. The catcher missed Japan's final exhibition game, a 6-1 win over NPB's Yomiuri Giants on Thursday, with an injury to his right knee. Yamamoto was noncommittal about Abe's status for the opener.
"We'll decide after watching how he does during batting practice," Yamamoto said. "As far as we saw today, he looked fine."
Abe also sounded a positive note after practice.
"It was better than I thought," Abe said of the knee.
Larkin expects a challenge, no matter who takes the field.
"It's just part of the game of baseball," Larkin said. "Regardless of injuries, I know it's going to be a very focused Japanese team, a very disciplined Japanese team. Regardless of the people they put out there, in order to beat them, any opponent is going to have to play a clean ballgame."
Larkin is more concerned with how his team performs.
"The key for us to win, period, no matter who we're playing, is to execute the game plan," Larkin said. "It's to follow the philosophies, it's to execute in game-type situations. It doesn't make a difference who we play, where we play or when we play. The only thing we can control is what we do as individuals. For us to win, each individual is going to have to do their particular job."
Jason Coskrey is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.