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Talented Japan the class of Pool A

Professional stars give Asian baseball giants an edge

Ichiro Suzuki chats Team Japan skipper Sadaharu Oh during a workout last week. (AP/Kyodo News)

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Japan is the host nation for Pool A, and it is the most established baseball power in East Asia. The Japanese have legitimate stars in the Major Leagues, and some -- former Mets manager and current Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine, for one -- think the upper echelon of Japan's pro league can be competitive with the MLB's best.

Japan's lineup has loads of speed and some of the better power hitters in Japanese baseball, but look for Sadaharu Oh's squad to take it one piece at a time, not trying to do too much too quickly. Oh has said all along that he wanted to build a team that could play traditional Japanese baseball and win. That means legging out infield hits, bunting and sacrifices -- all the tenets of good, old-fashioned small ball.

"Stealing bases, bunting, hit and run -- those are not strange in our baseball," shortstop Munenori Kawasaki said in a TV interview. "I don't like that they call it 'small ball.' That's our best way of playing, so in that respect, it's big."

Japan's hype leading up to the World Baseball Classic has been about Hideki Matsui and Tadahito Iguchi deciding not to play. A lot of Japan's players are pretty tired of hearing about how much it hurts the team to play without those two, and with the intensely competitive Ichiro Suzuki leading the way, the Japanese are out to show they still are a first-tier World Baseball Classic team. The proof starts with taking care of business in Asia.

Baseball in Japan: Baseball is very revered by the Japanese. The Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants still draw more than 3 million fans per season, and Nippon Professional Baseball is healthy one full season after Japan's players went on strike.

National baseball heroes are Japan manager Oh, the world's home run champion with 868, and "Mr Giant," Shigeo Nagashima. Japan has qualified for the Olympics every year since it became a medal event, winning a silver in 1996 and bronze in 1992 and 2004.

Projected Lineup: Ichiro Suzuki (RF), Munenori Kawasaki (SS), Norichika Aoki (CF), Nobuhiko Matsunaka (DH), Takahiro Arai (1B), Akinori Iwamura (3B), Kazuhiro Wada (LF), Ryoji Aikawa (C), Tsuyoshi Nishioka (2B)

Likely Starters: 1. Koji Uehara (vs. China) 2. Daisuke Matsuzaka (vs. Chinese Taipei) 3. Shunsuke Watanabe (vs. Korea)

Strengths: Japan is Asia's most complete team. It has a solid complement of all the essentials to win baseball games: speed, power, experience and pitching, pitching, pitching. With Ichiro, Kawasaki and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Japan has three stolen base champions on its roster. Japan's speedsters should be effective on the basepaths, setting the table for Nobuhiku Matsunaka, Takahiro Arai and the rest of Japan's power hitters.

Oh lost out on some top position players, but he got just about every pitcher he wanted. With Shunsuke Watanabe, Koji Uehara and Daisuke Matsuzaka as the likely first-round starters, Japan has three guys who have kept runs off the board for top-shelf Japanese teams.

Other quality arms will await dispatch from the bullpen. Japan expects big things from Hirotoshi Ishii and Akinori Otsuka, who is making his return to Japan from the Majors. Teams in any round of the Classic will earn every run they plate.

Country Information
Here are some things you may not know about each of the 16 countries taking part in the first World Baseball Classic.
Population:127.7 million
Capital:Tokyo (12 million)
Popular Sports:Baseball, sumo, soccer, marathon, golf
Favorite Foods:sushi, rice, curry, miso soup
Favorite Music:J-pop (Japanese pop), classical (especially Mozart), American jazz, Latin beats (especially salsa), traditional folk music (vocal), taiko drums, shamisen (three-stringed Japanese lute), shakuhachi (bamboo flute)
Famous Athletes:Hideki Matsui, Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura, Naoko Takahashi, Ai Miyazato, Mao Asada.
Fun Fact:Tokyo's Shinjuku station, the world's busiest, has some 3 million people pass through it every day.

Weaknesses: Japan won't find RBIs as easily without "Godzilla," but Matsui's absence has spawned two schools of thought: players who have moved on, and players who fear aftereffects if Japan makes it to Anaheim. The players in the second group are the overwhelming minority, but one is all it takes. Going up against powerhouses like the United States, Dominican Republic and Venezuela could get a lot tougher if self-doubt is not eradicated.

Meanwhile, Japan must be careful not to be too conservative offensively. As seen in an exhibition loss to the NPB All-Stars, Team Japan can take things too slowly. Eking out runs methodically one at a time is not always the best approach.

Pitch counts could be a huge factor for Japan, which has a roster of rubber-armed hurlers who are used to throwing a couple hundred pitches several times per week. They like to work the count, and the pitch limit could cause problems with rhythm.

Keep an eye on ... Toshiaki Imae. The infielder probably will not start ahead of Iwamura, but he showed how effective he could be last October in the Japan Series, when he set a record by getting hits in his first eight at-bats on the way to being named Japan Series MVP.

Big Question: How far can Japan go? Frankly, Japan is not very likely to drop more than one in its pool, if any, and it has potential to be a dangerous team further on down the road. But can the Japanese step up and fulfill their Classic potential?

Quotable: "This is totally different, such a motivating tournament for us. We have to win every game. I feel that way." -- Japan third baseman Iwamura

They'll advance if ... They play anywhere near potential. Korea has the horses to keep up with Japan, but Chinese Taipei and China do not stack up well. The Japanese can do a little of everything, so as long as they don't get overconfident, they should be able to get it done in Group A.

Stephen Ellsesser is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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