Japan seeking repeat in Classic

Defending champion boasts talented team of Major Leaguers

Team Japan hopes to celebrate a title in the 2009 World Baseball Classic as it did in 2006. (Chris Carlson/AP)

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Japan will enter the 2009 World Baseball Classic with the proud distinction as defending champions. But for a country that beams with baseball pride, there figures to be no lack of hunger for a repeat performance.

Just take the case of Ichiro Suzuki. The Mariners' sweet-swinging outfielder has done just about everything, both in his country and in Major League Baseball. He could easily sit out the World Baseball Classic after helping Japan win the inaugural tournament. However, that isn't in his thinking at all.

"I will try to win the WBC in earnest again," Suzuki told the Kyodo News in October.

With that kind of tone being set by Ichiro -- who hit .364 in the 2006 tournament -- expect other Japanese stars to follow. The second World Baseball Classic will be played in March 2009.

The Classic -- an event featuring 16 teams in four pools -- will be played March 5-23, with the first round taking place in four countries and the tournament concluding with the semifinals and finals taking place in Dodger Stadium.

When the Classic was unveiled in 2006, Daisuke Matsuzaka was a legendary name in Japan, but very much unknown outside of his own nation.

But the World Baseball Classic helped put Matsuzaka on the map. He defeated Cuba in the championship game and was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. Nine months later, after a fierce competition for his services, Matsuzaka signed a six-year contract with the Boston Red Sox.

Over his first two seasons in Boston, Matsuzaka has posted a record of 33-15. In his rookie season, he became the first Japanese starting pitcher to win a World Series game.

Matsuzaka could well be a factor as Japan tries to win back-to-back Classics.

Tatsunori Hara will manage Team Japan. Hara is the current manager of the tradition-laden Yomiuri Giants and has a record of 386-317-11 in five seasons. He won the Japan Series in 2002, his first as a manager. Legendary Japanese home run king Sadaharu Oh managed Japan in the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

Officially, no roster spots have been filled, though several players have made their desires known. Though he hasn't made a formal commitment yet, Matsuzaka confirmed to Japanese reporters several times during the 2008 season that he's interested in participating again.

Red Sox lefty Hideki Okajima, who didn't play in 2006, is sure to be asked this time around, considering the type of bullpen force he has become in his two years in Boston.

Japan will play in Pool A, with first-round action set for Tokyo, beginning on March 5. Other teams in Pool A are China, Chinese Tapei and Korea. Two teams will move on to the next round, and Japan is certainly a favorite to be one of them. If Japan can make it out of Pool A, it would move to San Diego for second-round action.

One intriguing storyline would be if Yu Darvish -- the ace of the Nippon Ham Fighters -- plays in the World Baseball Classic. Since Matsuzaka's departure to the Red Sox, Darvish has been the most prominent pitching star in Japan. He is 22 years old and has an electric arm. Perhaps he could have a coming-out party like the one Matsuzaka had in 2006.

The one Japanese star who again won't play in the World Baseball Classic is Yankees outfielder/DH Hideki Matsui.

But there could be plenty of others.

Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura hit .389 to help Japan to the championship last time. Iwamura, who played a key role in helping the Rays to the 2008 World Series, is unsure if he'll play again.

"The only problem is [the time of year] when it's held," Iwamura said. "Last time I was there I had a hamstring problem."

Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima didn't play last time because he was getting ready to start his Major League career. But he confirmed that he'd "love" to play this time.

Outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, who hit .257 in 2008, his rookie year with the Cubs, belted two homers in the 2006 Classic. He indicated he'd be honored to play again if asked.

One reliever who could clearly help Team Japan is Takashi Saito, who has a 1.95 ERA in three seasons with the Dodgers. But the righty's status for the World Baseball Classic is in limbo because of elbow problems he had late in 2008.

"I've never been blessed with the opportunity, so I can't really say," said Saito. "Everything is up in the air and there's my elbow problem. When I get invited, I'll think about it."

But Yasuhiko Yabuta, who posted a 4.78 ERA for the Royals in 2008, could be available. He said he'll have to clear it with the team first.

"It's always a great honor to be asked to represent your country," Yabuta said.

Hiroki Kuroda didn't play in 2006 but after a largely successful rookie season with the Dodgers in 2008 (9-10, 3.73 ERA in 31 starts), he's all but certain to get an invitation.

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