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Japan, Korea favored in Pool A

Asian baseball leaders have many edges in upcoming Classic

Ichiro Suzuki and Team Japan enjoy home-country advantage in the first round. (Shizuo Kambayashi/AP)

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The 2009 World Baseball Classic begins on Thursday with Pool A -- the Asia Round -- at Tokyo Dome, kicking off with host and defending champion Japan playing China at 4:30 a.m. ET.

Korea will take on Chinese Taipei at 4:30 a.m. ET on Friday to get the first round fully under way.

Following is a look at the four teams and their prospects for advancement to the next round.

Manager Tatsunori Hara's Japan Samurai will be out to defend their title and make their fans forget a lackluster performance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, from which they came home without a medal.

Japan has everything going for it, from the home-country and home-crowd advantage to a couple of bona fide Major League superstars in Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox, and must be considered the favorite to win Pool A.

Japanese League players to watch include starting pitchers Yu Darvish of the Nippon Ham Fighters and Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka of the Rakuten Eagles; closer Kyuji Fujikawa of the Hanshin Tigers; first baseman Michihiro "Guts" Ogasawara of the Yomiuri Giants; third baseman Shuichi Murata of the Yokohama BayStars; and outfielder Norichika Aoki of the Yakult Swallows.

Brimming with confidence after defeating Cuba to win the gold medal in Beijing, manager In-Sik Kim expects nothing less than advancement to Round 2 with an assortment of star players from the Korea Baseball Organization.

But the team will be without slugger Seung Yeop Lee, who decided not to play in the Classic and instead remained with his Tokyo Giants teammates after an injury-prone 2008 regular season. In addition, Shin-Soo Choo of the Cleveland Indians is coming off rehab for an injured ankle and may be limited to DH duties -- if he plays at all.

Taking over the cleanup slot in the batting order is first baseman Tae Kyun Kim, a young power hitter from the Hanhwa Eagles of the KBO, who homered in his first at-bat at Tokyo Dome in a warmup game against Japan's Seibu Lions.

Despite the absence of Lee, Korea is expected to join Japan and move to the next round.

Chinese Taipei
Manager Chih-Shien Yeh is disappointed that some of the teams in the Chinese Professional Baseball League decided to not let certain star players join his Classic team, but he will do his best with what he has.

The club is made up of several CPBL players, a few college athletes, nine players from Major League organizations and some free agents with no current team affiliation.

One of the key players is outfielder Wei-Chu Lin, a regular with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan's Central League, who said, "Anything can happen in an elimination tournament," obviously looking for an upset of Japan or Korea and a trip to the U.S. for more Classic action.

Yeh's starter for the Pool A opener against Korea is expected to be right-hander Chen-Chang Lee of the Cleveland Indians organization, and his performance could be the key to whatever chance Chinese Taipei has for advancement.

Former Astros and Angels manager Terry Collins is leading China's developing team against three strong Asia clubs. Collins has experience in Asia, having managed the Orix Buffaloes of Japan's Pacific League in 2007 and 2008.

Though they hosted last summer's Olympics and beat rival Chinese Taipei in one game, the Chinese are not expected to win in Pool A, let alone advance to the next round. The players are too inexperienced, and their level of play is still well below that of their opponents.

However, Collins does have a few players from Major League organizations: Ray Chang, a Double-A shortstop in the Pittsburgh Pirates chain, and New York Yankees Minor League pitcher Kai Lui and catcher Zhenwang Zhang.

China opens play against Japan, and pitcher Lu Jiangang of the China Baseball League's Tianjin Lions will most likely start. Lu has experience pitching for the Chunichi Dragons of Japan's Central League.

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

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