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China ready for looming challenge

Despite jump in competition, club enters Classic prepared

China manager Jim Lefebvre (right) chats with his players at a practice Scottsdale, Ariz. (Will Powers/AP)

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The Chinese national team has come a long way in a short time, and the World Baseball Classic offers the biggest challenge yet for the team that will represent China in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

China qualified for the World Cup last year and finished tied for 10th in the 18-team event, scoring almost as many runs (eight) in its game against eventual champion Cuba as seven other teams combined (11).

"We have moved past some teams and even beat Taiwan for the first time, which was a big thing," China manager Jim Lefebvre said. "There are teams out there we can beat, and we're getting to the point where we feel good about our ability to compete. We have made a big jump, but we have a ways to go to catch the big guys like Cuba, Japan and the U.S."

Going from the World Cup to the World Baseball Classic is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Team China will open Pool A play at the Tokyo Dome on Friday against a Japanese team that is loaded with stars from the Japanese Central and Pacific Leagues, plus an additional touch of class in right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, a megastar in the American Major Leagues.

China will face Korea on Saturday and Chinese Taipei on Sunday. The two teams with the best records in Pool A will then advance to the second round, which will be played in Anaheim March 12-16.

Baseball in China: The sport is making a strong comeback after lying dormant during the Cold War era of Mao Zedong. The China Baseball League was started in 2002, and six teams currently play a 30-game schedule from April through July. The top two teams play a best-of-five series to determine the champion, and the Beijing Tigers are the reigning champions. The Classic is regarded as a major stepping stone for the Chinese national team that will compete in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The country's most famous baseball player is current center fielder Sun Lingfeng, although Harry Kingman -- born in Tientsin -- played for the Yankees in 1914.

Projected lineup: Sun Lingfeng (CF), Liu Guangbiao (2B), Yang Guogang (DH), Zhang Yufeng (SS), Zhang Hongbo (RF), Chen Zhe (1B), Yang Shuo (LF), Feng Yi (C), Pan Wenbin (3B).

Likely starters: Li Chenhoa, Chen Kun and Nan Wang.

Strengths: The team relies on solid defense, timely hitting and moving runners along on the bases to stay competitive. Shortstop Zhang Yufeng and second baseman Liu Guangbiao have developed into a reliable double-play combination, and along with catcher Wang Wei and Lingfeng, the team is strong up the middle. Most of the hitters perform best when hitting into the left- and right-center field gaps, while the bulk of the power comes from outfielder Liu Yaquing, who hit eight home runs in 108 at-bats last season in the China Baseball League. Yufeng was selected as the CBL's Most Valuable Player last season after batting .397. Third baseman Yang Guogang is another formidable offensive player, batting .323 for the Tianjin Tigers last season. Guangbiao has benefited from his three-year association with Lefebvre, a former big-league second baseman, and was selected last season as the best defensive player in the CBL.

Country Information
Here are some things you may not know about each of the 16 countries taking part in the first World Baseball Classic.
Country:
China
Population:1.3 billion
Capital:Beijing
Popular Sports:Basketball, ping pong, soccer
Favorite Foods:Malva, turnip, peach, crabapple, pork, chicken
Favorite Music:Chinese Opera is very popular, and there are 26 traditional musical instruments, ranging from the Banhu to the Zheng, the most dynamic instrument in China
Famous Athletes:NBA star Yao Ming; Wang Zhizhi, China's first NBA player; Shooter Xu Haifeng, who won China's first Olympic gold medal at the Los Angeles Games in 1984
Fun Fact:There are approximately 156,000 Chinese playing organized baseball

Weaknesses: Practically all of China's players have below-average arm strength because they started playing the game at an older age and never had a chance to develop the muscles -- or technique -- to make strong throws. Therefore, infielders have to play closer to the infield grass against most hitters, and balls into the gaps become triples almost as often as doubles. Kun, a right-handed starter and the ace of the starting staff, throws the hardest -- in the mid-80s. He has the best chance to strike someone out, fanning 29 batters in 34 1/3 innings last season in the CBL. Nan, a left-hander, doesn't throw particularly hard, but he's a competitor and knows how to win, posting a 4-1 record and league-leading 0.62 ERA last season. Pitching depth could be a problem during the Classic for China.

Keep an eye on: First baseman/designated hitter Zhe Chen experienced a major infusion of confidence during the World Cup in Holland last August, batting .375 (9-for-24) and driving in five runs in the seven games he played. Chen contributed four doubles to the China offense during the tournament.

Big Question: The lack of pitching depth could hurt, especially with the starters being limited to 65 pitches in the first round. Pitching coach Bruce Hurst emphasized location, location, location during the team's month-long training camp in Arizona.

Quotable: "They call him 'The Ichiro of China.' He's a slap hitter, smart and has a lot of speed. He can't throw a lick, but can really go after the ball in the outfield. He's fun to watch." -- Lefebvre, on Lingfeng

They'll advance if ... they play a good game against Japan in the tournament opener and prove that they are capable of competing against a top-quality team. That would boost China's confidence for the remaining two games. Saving its best pitchers for Korea and Chinese Taipei could turn out to be instrumental for China.

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

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