3/2/2013 2:00 P.M. ET
After close opener, Japan set to face China
By Jason Coskrey / Special to MLB.com
FUKUOKA, Japan -- Japan opened its defense of the World Baseball Classic title by narrowly avoiding what would have been a monumental upset at the hands of Brazil on Saturday.
The Japanese can probably expect things to be much easier on Sunday, when they take the field against China. Fans can watch the game on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes at 5 a.m. ET (7 p.m. local time).
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An upstart Brazilian squad gave Japan all it could handle in the opener for both teams, taking a 3-2 lead into the eighth, before a three-run inning put Japan on top to stay.
"[Brazil] is a very good team," Japan captain Shinnosuke Abe said. "The offense and defense is very good."
The Chinese didn't have it so easy the last time they were on the field in Fukuoka, either. China played a warmup game on Friday against a depleted Yomiuri Giants team that was missing multiple Classic participants, and fell behind early in an 8-1 defeat.
They'll face a much tougher test on Sunday against Japan.
"Japan has very good baseball players, No. 1," Brazil manager Barry Larkin said. "They have a very defined game plan, that's No. 2, and they execute. They have very good pitching, they're a good defensive ballclub, they don't make many mistakes. That's just about everything. They do everything well. When you play Japan, you certainly know that you're going to have to play well to win."
Facing the Chinese could be just what the doctor ordered for Japan's slumping offense, which didn't really get going against Brazil until the eighth inning.
Japan has the talent to punish the Chinese pitching staff, many of whom pitched in November's Asia Series, when China allowed a combined 23 runs in two losses.
Xia Luo will get the first crack at Japan's hitters, with the Japanese scheduled to send Kenta Maeda to the hill.
Maeda will be looking to bounce back from a pair of subpar outings in warmup games. The right-hander has been bothered by a nagging shoulder injury this spring, but he is well enough to face the Chinese in the Classic.
A good performance by Maeda will ease some of the pressure on manager Koji Yamamoto, who is already trying to figure out what to do with his ace, Masahiro Tanaka, after a shaky game against Brazil.
China cleanup hitter Ray Chang, a Minor Leaguer in the Twins organization, figures to be one of the players who may give Maeda a little trouble.
Despite what looks like a mismatch on paper, China did play Japan relatively close during their meeting in the 2009 Classic opener, though the Japanese managed to pull out a 4-0 victory before eventually moving through the tournament and capturing the World Baseball Classic title for the second straight time.
Jason Coskrey is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.