Japan Gets Comfortable With Pressure

SAN FRANCISCO—Japanese media made for an overflow crowd in the interview room at AT&T Park, and when pitcher Kenta Maeda and manager Koji Yamamoto walked in, the sound of all the cameras firing at the same time had to be distracting, even for a player and manager used to all the attention.

The first question directed at Yamamoto was about the pressure of expectations, considering Japan has won the first two World Baseball Classics. Yamamoto betrayed no emotion in his answer.

“I have been feeling the pressure from the first pool,” he said (via a translator). “And I have survived up to here.”

Indeed, Japan lost to Cuba in the round robin of Pool A, but it went undefeated in the second round of Pool 1 and enters the semifinals confident and favored against upstart Puerto Rico, which has advanced to its first WBC semifinals.

The first pitch at their game Sunday at 9 p.m. ET will feature legends from both sides. Puerto Rico’s Orlando Cepeda, whose play for the Giants earned him a statue outside AT&T Park, will be involved in the pregame ceremonies while Yamamoto’s predecessors as Japan’s WBC managers—all-time home run king Sadaharu Oh , who managed the ’06 team, and ’09 manager Tatsunori Hara—will throw out the first pitches.

Righthander Maeda of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp will pitch Sunday for Japan, coming off a dominant start against the Netherlands. Maeda struck out nine in five scoreless innings, giving up only one hit in a victory that clinched a semifinal berth. He said he didn’t know much about Puerto Rico but would stick to his own style of pitching and not change for his opponent.

Maeda, seen as one of the top talents on Japan’s roster and perhaps a candidate to leave Japan and come to the U.S. majors, dodged a question about his MLB future.

“It is really hard to me to answer, so please let me say just ‘no comment,'” he said, drawing laughter from much of the Japanese media. “But I’m delighted that I could pitch on the major league (stadium) here.”

Japan got its bats going in Pool 1, particularly in two victories against fellow semifinalist Netherlands. Dutch righthander Tom Stuifbergen, who pitched against the Dominican Republic in the ’09 Classic and has faced Cuba as well as making one start at Triple-A in the Twins system, called Japan’s lineup the best he’s ever faced. And Dutch veteran Rob Cordemans also raved about the Japanese, who pounded him in a 16-4 Pool 1 victory.

Still, Japan does not figure to take any team for granted. Noting the U.S. team’s absence, Yamamoto said, “With baseball, anything could happen . . . (The) WBC has incidents of seeing such strong teams falling off . . . I’ve been just focusing on how to win.”

In WBC play, no nation has done that as well as Japan, which is now 17-6 in Classic play all-time and two wins away from its own championship. This one would be the first without Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka, the two-time WBC MVP. It would be a new experience for a different team facing the same pressure, if not more, as its predecessors.

Maeda talked with several Japanese players during his team’s recent trip to Arizona for a pair of exhibitions about the previous WBCs, and they could relate to the atmosphere of a Classic win-or-out game.

“They have told me that . . . I will feel a lot of pressure, or that I will need to go through a lot of tension,” he said. “So it may look easier from the outside. But there are things you never really understand until you really do it yourself.”

That’s just what Japan’s 2013 WBC edition plans to do.