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Lyle Spencer

Japan again relying on aces in quest for third title

Japan again relying on aces in quest for third title

SAN FRANCISCO -- In 2006, at the inaugural World Baseball Classic, it was Daisuke Matsuzaka and Koji Uehara. Three years later, it was Dice-K again, joining forces with Yu Darvish.

Classic pitching has made Japan back-to-back Classic champions. No other country has won this global tournament, something Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the Kingdom of the Netherlands are committed to changing by Tuesday night.

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The names change, but Japan is still counting on its pitching to dominate. The ball goes to 24-year-old right-hander Kenta Maeda in Sunday night's semifinal against Puerto Rico at AT&T Park.

Poised to assume those responsibilities if Japan advances to the Tuesday night championship game against either Dominicans or the Dutch is Masahiro Tanaka, another 24-year-old right-hander with premium stuff.

Whatever Maeda may have learned about Classic pressures from Matsuzaka and Darvish during Team Japan's recent Spring Training stop in Arizona, he was keeping it to himself on Saturday.

"Well, there are things that I cannot really tell you here," Maeda said, "but they have told me that the day [I pitch] I will feel a lot of pressure or that I will need to go through a lot of tension.  So it may look easy from the outside, but there are things you never really understand until you really do it yourself. So, that was the talk we had."

The only pressure Maeda has generated in this Classic has been on hitters trying to make contact with his precise control, big curveball and deep repertoire.

Through 10 innings of two starts, both victories, the smooth operator for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp has allowed two hits, one walk and no runs, striking out 15. This is the brand of work he delivered in going 14-7 with a 1.53 ERA in 206 1/3 innings for Hiroshima in 2012.

Because he has several years left before he can post and become available to Major League teams, Maeda artfully avoided the question about his desire to follow Matsuzaka, Uehara and Darvish to American soil.

"It's really hard for me to answer," he said, "so please let me say just no comment. But I'm delighted that I could pitch on the Major League grounds here."

Japan has another dominant right-hander in Tanaka, who gained experience in the 2009 Classic with four appearances.

Tanaka, in four games at this Classic, has 12 strikeouts without a walk in seven innings, allowing three runs (two earned) on 10 hits. He has a physical presence at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds.

Southpaw Kenji Otonari and righties Kazuhisa Makita and Tadashi Settsu have picked up wins for Japan, which has gone 5-1 in the Classic.

Japan's roster is drawn entirely from its own teams, featuring seven members of the Yomiuri Giants and six players from the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. Tanaka toils for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Japan's most familiar name to American fans is second baseman Kazuo Matsui, a Major Leaguer for seven years with the Mets, Rockies and Astros. A teammate of Tanaka with Rakuten, Matsui is a role player for Japan, one of its senior citizens at 37.

Japan has great balance both on the field and on the mound. It has six left-handed hitters along with Matsui, a switch-hitter. The team also has six lefties to draw from on the mound.

There is no Ichiro Suzuki this time around, but Japan's left-handed offensive weapons include catcher/DH Shinnosuke Abe, Atsunori Inaba, Yoshio Itoi and Katsuya Kakunaka.

Hirokazu Ibata, a second baseman, is not physically imposing at 5-8 and 165 pounds, but he's been pounding the ball along with third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda. Ibata has an inside-out swing favored by the likes of Derek Jeter, Michael Young and Howard Kendrick, slashing line drives to right and right-center.

Maeda, in command, figures to be hard to beat with all the resources owned by Team Japan.

"The atmosphere is similar," Maeda said when asked about AT&T Park in relation to his home park in Hiroshima. "But as I walk out to the ground, it's very different. So I had a very fresh feeling that, oh, this is the ground of the Major League Baseball team."

The Major League Baseball champion, in fact.

Now it's Japan's turn to try to be giants again -- of the World Baseball Classic.

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

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