Lacking star power, Japan still on familiar path
Despite no Yu, Ichiro, Dice-K, country taking aim at third straight Classic title
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When sifting through Team Japan's World Baseball Classic roster, the absence of Major League stars like Yu Darvish, Ichiro Suzuki and two-time Classic Most Valuable Player Daisuke Matsuzaka is strikingly apparent.
But the way manager Koji Yamamoto sees it, the fact that his country's representation lacks big league property isn't a hindrance at all. Rather, it's an opportunity, a chance for a new crop of Japanese players to make an impression on what they hope are potential future employers.
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"It's motivating for these players now, because a lot of them don't have experience here, but they have a lot of interest in it," Yamamoto said through an interpreter. "Hopefully this will be a good start for these guys to know what the Major Leagues are all about. If they can compete here, then that becomes another challenge for them."
Easily advancing through the first two rounds of the Classic, Japan's only loss in six games so far came to Cuba in a matchup that only mattered for seeding purposes.
While the team waits to see whom it will play in the semifinals Sunday in San Francisco, it stopped in Arizona on Thursday to play an exhibition against another set of defending champions, the Giants. Japan will also play the Cubs on Friday before flying to California. All World Baseball Classic games can be seen on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes.
But even though the pair of games is only for practice, the players see it as exposure to Major League competition, which they all dream about being a part of someday.
"This'll make these guys mentally stronger, and it is a very positive thing down the road for them," Yamamoto said. "You can see these guys are growing with more confidence as we play more games. We play with a lot of pressure on our backs, and to be in a special event like this, it's always motivating."
Yamamoto said that while he has watched some of the other Classic teams Japan might play in the semis -- like the United States, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic -- he is remaining focused on his own squad and its search for a third consecutive title.
"All I have in my mind is Japanese baseball and how we play," he said. "It's not easy to win back-to-back, and we're going for a third straight right now, so we carry a lot of pressure. Our goal was to come to the United States, and once we did that, anything can happen."
Japan's statistical leaders through the first two rounds include hitters Hirokazu Ibata and Shinnosuke Abe, who have combined for 14 hits in 33 at-bats while driving in 10 runs and scoring 11. On the mound, Kenta Maeda has shined the brightest, with 10 scoreless innings and 15 strikeouts so far.
Players like those three carry the torch for Japan, where the extremely popular Classic has already set television-ratings records.
"I think the first events in '06 and '09 helped us a lot, it united the nation," Yamamoto said. "All the fans are excited because of that, and it's a bigger event now. It's more known, it's more popular."
Tyler Emerick is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.