World Baseball Classic
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Pool A teams converge in Tokyo

Host team Japan regarded as favorite to advance

Four countries with varied baseball histories converge in Tokyo this weekend for the first round of games in the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

The host Japan team, featuring five-time Major League All-Star Ichiro Suzuki, is the overwhelming favorite to advance to the second round in Anaheim. But teams from Korea, Chinese Taipei and China also have high hopes of moving on in the 16-team tournament.

Each of the four Pool A teams will play games Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Tokyo Dome, and two of the teams journey to Peoria, Ariz., to prepare for the second round.

Ballpark: When the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome opened on March 13, 1988, it was nicknamed "The Big Egg" because of its appearance. That name has since been dropped. The indoor facility has an artificial turf, which benefits teams with speed, especially on defense. It is a symmetrical ballpark with the left- and right-field fences 328 feet down the lines and 400 feet in center field.

The Teams

Japan: Even with only two Major League players -- right fielder Ichiro Suzuki (Mariners) and pitcher Akinori Otsuka (Rangers) -- on its 30-man roster, Japan is regarded as the most likely Pool A team to advance to the second round of the tournament.

Japan is the most balanced team in the Asia region, something that should be somewhat expected, featuring speed in the likes of Ichiro and infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka at the top of the lineup, power in the middle of the lineup with first baseman Nobuhiko Matsunaka and outfielder Kosuki Fukudome, and some strong-armed pitchers ready to lead the way.

The offense features Ichiro -- who won multiple batting titles during his nine seasons with Orix of Japan's Pacific League and five Major League seasons with the Mariners. The World Baseball Classic will be the first time Ichiro has played a "significant" game in his homeland since signing with Seattle prior to the 2001 season.

The switch-hitting Nishioka spearheads Japan's running game. He was 41-for-41 in stolen base attempts with the Chiba Lotte Mariners last season and has been caught stealing just twice in 49 career attempts.

While the middle of the lineup would be more imposing with former Yomiuri Giants superstar Hideki Matsui, Japan can put Fukudome and Matsunaka in the power positions and possibly not miss a beat.

Matsunaka, a nine-year veteran with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, captured the Pacific League Triple Crown in 2004 with a .358 batting average, 44 home runs and 120 RBIs in 130 games and hit a career-best 46 home runs and drove in 121 runs last season.

Fukudome, the Chunichi Dragons' cleanup hitter, ranked second among Central League players with a .328 batting average in 2005.

The pitching staff is anchored by Shunsuke Watanabe (15-4, 2.17 ERA last season) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (14-13, 2.30 ERA), who struck out a Pacific League-high 226 batters last season.

Though Matsuzaka is regarded as the best starting pitcher in Japan, he might be used as a reliever in the Classic because of the pitch-count limit being used in the event.

Korea: Buoyed by a roster that includes several pitchers with Major League experience, the Korea team believes it has a good chance of not only advancing past the first round in Tokyo but all the way to the semifinals in San Diego.

The Korea pitching staff is headed by San Diego Padres right-hander Chan Ho Park and a couple of Colorado Rockies teammates -- right-handers Byung-Hyun Kim and Sun Woo (Sunny) Kim. They have combined to pitch in 748 Major League games and have compiled a 155-132 big-league record.

Park is the most famous pitcher in Korean history and has spent 12 seasons in the Major Leagues.

The two Kims, meanwhile, enter the Classic with plenty of confidence carried over from last season. Sun Woo ended the 2005 MLB season with five wins in his last six decisions with the Rockies while Byung-Hyun, who has a wealth of international competition on his resume, made a career-high 22 starts for the Rockies and pitched better than his 5-12 record would indicate.

Byung-Hyun has previous international experience with Korea's Junior National team (1996) and the National Team (1997-98). He made a big name for himself in the United States in '98 when he pitched against Team USA on a pre-Olympic tour and struck out 15 batters in 6 2/3 innings.

Dae-Sung Koo, a rookie reliever with the New York Mets last season, gives Korea another World Baseball Classic hurler with MLB experience. He appeared in 33 games with the National League team and posted a 3.91 ERA.

The offense figures to be led by first baseman Heep Seop Choi. The first Korean-born position player to play in the Major Leagues has hit 40 home runs during his four MLB seasons and represented South Korea in the International Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game in Detroit last summer.

Chinese Taipei: Not that they have a defeatist attitude, but word out of Taiwan indicates that the Chinese Taipei team will focus more on beating Korea in the World Baseball Classic opener Friday morning and China in the finale Sunday night than its game against Japan during the round-robin event at the Tokyo Dome.

The reason: Japan is by far the strongest team in Pool A and winning two games could be enough to advance to the second round in Anaheim.

That being said, recent developments have hurt the team's chances.

First, star pitcher Chien-ming Wang decided to pass on the Classic and concentrate on getting ready for the MLB regular season with the Yankees in Florida -- thereby weakening a Chinese Taipei pitching staff that lacks experience.

And more recently, first baseman Chen Chin-feng, projected to be the most productive hitter in the lineup, decided on Friday that the nagging hand injury suffered last season would not allow him to participate in the tournament.

Chen spent seven years in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, but played only sparingly in the big leagues. He returned to Taiwan during the offseason to sign a record three-year contract with the La New Bears team -- the first multi-year contract in the league's 16-year history.

Without Chen, the Chinese Taipei team must rely on the first baseman Chia-Hsien Hsieh, who belted 23 home runs and drove in 74 runs for the Macoto Cobras last season and infielder Tai-Shan Chang, who has 154 home runs in a 10-year professional career.

Left-hander Lin Ying-jei, who posted a 12-10 record and 2.33 ERA for Macoto last season, striking out 174 batters in 212 innings, is expected to get the starting nod against Korea in Friday's opener and use his 65 pitches wisely.

If Chinese Taipei has a lead in the final inning, look for lefthander Hong-Chih Kuo to try to protect the lead. He has a 1.91 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings during his 17-game career in the Dodgers' Minor League system.

China: The least-experienced team in the tournament has been preparing for the World Baseball Classic since late January in Scottsdale, Ariz., under the supervision of manager Jim Lefebvre and pitching coach Bruce Hurst.

Some would say the China National Team needs the most practice because it never has played against the quality of competition that awaits them in Tokyo.

But do not underestimate the mainland China team.

Center fielder Sun Lingfeng is the team catalyst on offense and defense and so goes Sun, so goes the team. With Lingfeng in the lineup during the World Cup last September, China posted a 3-3 record and gave powerhouse Cuba a scare before losing, 12-8.

But a shoulder injury in a game against Sweden knocked Lingfeng out of the tournament and China was eliminated after losing its next two games. Even so, China made its presence felt and has been building confidence since the World Cup.

The China National Team lacks power at the plate and on the mound, but has been instructed in the fine art of playing sound, fundamental baseball. The team rarely beats itself with mistakes, and as long as the pitchers throw quality strikes, change speeds and use all four corners of the strike zone, they can beat anyone and any given day.

"We have to play the game right," Lefebvre said. "That means catch the ball, throw the ball, hit the cutoff man and advance runners. You don't need to hit the ball out of the ballpark or throw 100 mph to win games.

"As long as we pitch and get people out, we have a chance to win."

Things To Watch

Marquee Matchup: Japan right-hander Shunsuke Watanabe vs. China center fielder Sun Lingfeng. The first head-to-head battle in the World Baseball Classic opener for both teams could set the tone for the March 3 game. Lingfeng is the engine that makes the China National Team run and he can be a disruptive force. There is pressure on Watanabe to keep Lingfeng off the bases.

Sleeper: Keep a close eye on China. Lefebvre and Hurst have been instructing this team the past three years and the month-long training camp could be a huge advantage in the tournament. With so little in the way of expectations, there is less pressure on China than any other Pool A team.

Fearless Forecast: Japan and China will advance to the second round, which will be played March 12-16 in Anaheim. Japan has speed, power and the pitching to win all three games in Tokyo while upstart China relies on defense, pitching and fundamentals. That will be just enough to advance.

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