Japan set to defend as Classic champs

Skipper, fans expect repeat performance of '06 tournament victory

Ichiro Suzuki is one of five Major Leaguers on the Japanese World Baseball Classic roster. (AP)

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2009-03-02T21:20:10 2009-03-03T10:00:00 Wayne Graczyk is a contributor to MLB.com.]]> Equipped with bats, not swords, they are taking on the world -- again.

Japan's national team, nicknamed the Samurai, begins what it hopes will be a successful defense of the 2006 World Baseball Classic championship when the 2009 Classic kicks off with Pool A beginning at 4:30 a.m. ET Thursday at Tokyo Dome.

Japan stood above all others in the inaugural 16-team tournament in '06, and no doubt will be a favorite not only to advance from the pool -- which includes Korea, Chinese Taipei and China -- but perhaps win it all again.

Yomiuri Giants manager Tatsunori Hara, doing double duty as the Samurai skipper, expects Japan to repeat as champs. If the backing of Japanese baseball fans throughout the country means anything, he can't miss.

"All of our players are in great shape," Hara said. "I am fully confident we can win it again."

Hara has assembled 28 of the finest Japanese players, including five Major Leaguers -- two with World Series experience -- and the team has drawn massive crowds to its informal workouts, organized practices, intrasquad and tuneup games.

The atmosphere is electric, especially when the fans' favorite, Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, is on the field. When he's in the batter's box, the domed stadiums light up with camera flashes coming from every direction.

Ichiro shares his manager's brimming confidence.

"Of course, we will aim to win the Asian round," Ichiro said recently. "Then, the Asian representatives will go to America and grab victory there. That will be very important for baseball in Asia and baseball in the world."

Preparation for defense of the title began when Hara gathered 33 players at the team's mini-camp in the city of Miyazaki, in southern Japan, early in February. After working out the kinks, the Samurai played exhibition games against the Yomiuri Giants before capacity crowds at the 30,000-seat Sun Marine Stadium in Miyazaki on Feb. 21 and 22, the latter game played in a steady, cold rain.

Granted, there was no admission fee, but fans had to line up for tickets, and several thousand camped out all night to make sure they could get in. It was still dark outside when the last of the freebies were handed out at about 6 a.m. local time both days for the 1 p.m. games.

TOKYO -- The Samurai are prepared to defend what is rightfully theirs.

Equipped with bats, not swords, they are taking on the world -- again.

Japan's national team, nicknamed the Samurai, begins what it hopes will be a successful defense of the 2006 World Baseball Classic championship when the 2009 Classic kicks off with Pool A beginning at 4:30 a.m. ET Thursday at Tokyo Dome.

Japan stood above all others in the inaugural 16-team tournament in '06, and no doubt will be a favorite not only to advance from the pool -- which includes Korea, Chinese Taipei and China -- but perhaps win it all again.

Yomiuri Giants manager Tatsunori Hara, doing double duty as the Samurai skipper, expects Japan to repeat as champs. If the backing of Japanese baseball fans throughout the country means anything, he can't miss.

"All of our players are in great shape," Hara said. "I am fully confident we can win it again."

Hara has assembled 28 of the finest Japanese players, including five Major Leaguers -- two with World Series experience -- and the team has drawn massive crowds to its informal workouts, organized practices, intrasquad and tuneup games.

The atmosphere is electric, especially when the fans' favorite, Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, is on the field. When he's in the batter's box, the domed stadiums light up with camera flashes coming from every direction.

Ichiro shares his manager's brimming confidence.

"Of course, we will aim to win the Asian round," Ichiro said recently. "Then, the Asian representatives will go to America and grab victory there. That will be very important for baseball in Asia and baseball in the world."

Preparation for defense of the title began when Hara gathered 33 players at the team's mini-camp in the city of Miyazaki, in southern Japan, early in February. After working out the kinks, the Samurai played exhibition games against the Yomiuri Giants before capacity crowds at the 30,000-seat Sun Marine Stadium in Miyazaki on Feb. 21 and 22, the latter game played in a steady, cold rain.

Granted, there was no admission fee, but fans had to line up for tickets, and several thousand camped out all night to make sure they could get in. It was still dark outside when the last of the freebies were handed out at about 6 a.m. local time both days for the 1 p.m. games.

Miyazaki police had to close the Sun Marine parking lot to general vehicles to avoid massive traffic jams, so the fans got there by train, bus, taxi, motor scooter, bicycle or on foot.

Five players of Japanese all-star caliber had to be cut to meet the 28-man roster limit, and the remaining Samurai moved north for two exhibition games at Kyocera Osaka Dome against the Classic team from Australia, passing though on its way to play in Pool B in Mexico City. Japan handily defeated an inexperienced Aussie squad by scores of 8-2 and 11-2 on Feb. 24 and 25 before crowds of 33,000 each night.

The fever of national pride got even hotter as the team pulled into the capital for a pair of final tuneup tilts against the defending Japan Series champion Saitama Seibu Lions and Hara's own Giants on Saturday and Sunday at Tokyo Dome.

Boisterous crowds of better than 42,000 each night filled the "Big Egg" to watch Hara and company lose to Seibu by a score of 7-2, but the Samurai came back to beat Yomiuri, 2-1, in their last exhibition game. They will play their first Classic game against China on Thursday.

For his part, Ichiro had just three hits -- all infield singles -- in 23 at-bats in six games.

"I'm not worried about him at all," Hara told the Daily Yomiuri. "He's healthy, he can run at full speed and throw, although it's true he hasn't turned it all on yet."

Besides Ichiro, big leaguers on the Japan roster are Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura, Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima and Red Sox right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Others in the lineup expected to play big roles in Japan's Classic title defense are first baseman Michihiro "Guts" Ogasawara of Yomiuri; third baseman Shuichi Murata of the Yokohama BayStars, who led Japan's Central League with 46 home runs in 2008; and outfielder Norichika Aoki of the Yakult Swallows, the 2005 and 2007 Central League batting champion.

The pitching staff is led by Matsuzaka, the 2006 Classic MVP, along with youngsters Yu Darvish, the Japanese-Iranian star from the Nippon Ham Fighters, and Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka of the Rakuten Eagles.

Iwakuma, a 21-game winner, was the 2008 Pacific League MVP. Also looking to impress with his fastball and forkball is closer Kyuji Fujikawa of the Hanshin Tigers.

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