February 18, 2009
Whether you're waiting for it or not, the World Baseball Classic is fast approaching. The international shindig kicks off in Tokyo on March 5 and runs through the final at Dodger Stadium on March 23. In an attempt to get you quickly up to speed with what's going on, BLS will be running occasional team previews as the event nears.
Pool: A, Tokyo
'06 WBC finish: Beat Cuba 10-6 in the championship
First game: Thursday, March 5 vs. China
Five questions to ask about Japan
• Down for double? In '06 Japan sneaked into the semis after going
1-2 2-1 in pool play (good enough to better Mexico and the U.S.) but fired up in the semis to dump Korea and Cuba in the well-watched-in-Japan final. Unlike many other teams in the tournament, the Japanese (with the possible exception of Hideki Matsui, who is recovering from surgery) will have their very best players going again. Many of them are familiar names, such as Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ichiro and Akinori Iwamura. The roster includes other major leaguers, plus stars from back home in the Central and Pacific leagues.
• When do we get to see Yu Darvish, how long will his hair be and what, if anything, will he be wearing? Only the manager, Tatsunori Hara, can answer the part about when Darvish pitches. Darvish's stylist, the second. Who knows about the naked part? The half-Persian, half-Japanese wunderkind continues to be the object of Japanese baseball fans' affection. Darvish, going on 23, is no less of a star now than when Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan profiled him a year ago in one of the best baseball features ever. Darvish's fastballs reach the upper-90s, his filthy slider goes about 91 mph and he likes talking to microphones with squirrels attached. A time will come when major league teams will bid on Darvish, which should intrigue American fans enough to tune in to Japan's WBC games.
• The manager is who? Where's Sadaharu Oh? Oh, he'll be watching — just from the stands. Oh, who holds the international record for home runs with 868 and managed for decades in Japan, retired this past October because of health problems. He had surgery for stomach cancer in 2006.
• How important is the WBC to the Japanese? Team Japan drew a crowd of about 37,000 to its first workout at Sun Marine Stadium in Miyazaki on Monday. No game, just a little batting practice, et al. Ichiro "swung at 50 pitches and hit three home runs," it was reported. Yeah. Enthusiasm should build to a fever pitch right around the time Japan and China kick off the tournament.
• But what happened in the Olympics? An early loss to Cuba (hung on Darvish) and a demoralizing defeat to South Korea left Japan fighting for the Bronze, which it lost, to the United States. Besides, what happens at the Olympics stays in the Olympics. Korea, along with Chinese Taipei, also are possible opponents in WBC pool play. Japan knocked out Korea in the previous WBC, which means everyone will be wanting revenge. Just like a Sopranos episode, only baseball.