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WBC set to open with Asia Round in Tokyo

By Wayne Graczyk
March 2, 2006

TOKYO-The 2006 World Baseball Classic begins Friday, March 3, as the Asia Round gets underway at Tokyo Dome. Host country Japan will be joined in the WBC Pool A by China, Taiwan and Korea, and the top two teams following three days of round-robin play will advance to Round Two of the WBC beginning March 12 in Anaheim. Japan and Korea are favored to move on to California.

The talent-laden Japanese squad, managed by world home run king Sadaharu Oh, features an all-star cast from the 12 teams in Japan's Central and Pacific Leagues, joined by two major leaguers: Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and Rangers righthander Akinori Otsuka.

Other high-profile players on Oh's roster include righthanders Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Seibu Lions and Koji Uehara of the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants and first baseman-DH Nobuhiko Matsunaka, the Pacific League batting triple crown winner in 2004 and home run and RBI leader in 2005. Matsunaka plays for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, the team managed by Oh.

Korea's team, managed by Kim In-Sik, consists of the best players from the Korean Baseball Organization, such as Kia Tigers outfielder Lee Jong Beom Lee who previously played with Japan's Chunichi Dragons. First baseman Lee Seung Yeop, who set the Asian home run record with 55 in 2003 while playing for the KBO's Samsung Lions, is also on the team. He played the last two seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan and is now with the Yomiuri Giants.

Korea's club also includes a contingent of American big leaguers, such as righthanders Park Chan-Ho (Padres) and Seo Jae-Weung (Dodgers), former Mets lefthander Koo Dae-Sung and Dodgers first baseman Choi Hee-Seop.

Taiwan's manager is Lin Hua-Wei, and most of his players come from the Chinese Professional Baseball League, bolstered by a handful from major league organizations. Among them are pitchers Kuo Hung-Chie (Dodgers) and Keng Po-Shuan and Cheng Chi-Hung (Blue Jays).

American Jim Lefebvre is the manager of the Chinese National Team, and he leads a group of guys from the upstart China Baseball League. Lefebvre's best players are pitcher Wang Nan and centerfielder Sun Ling-Feng who is known as the "Chinese Ichiro." Both play for the Beijing Tigers.

Each of the four Asia Round participants played one exhibition game against the Japan league Marines or Giants prior to the start of the official Classic contests, and the results of those may give some indication of what to expect when the games count.

On Feb. 28, manager Bobby Valentine's defending Japan League champion, Lotte, defeated Taiwan 6-3 in a day game at Tokyo Dome. In a night game, Yomiuri mauled Lefebvre's boys from China 17-0. The following day, Korea beat the Marines 7-2 in an early game, and the Japan National Team won over Yomiuri 2-0 at night.

At pre- and postgame press briefings, Oh said he thinks Japan is the strongest team in the pool and commented on the three opponents.

"China does not have a long history, but pro baseball has been played in Taiwan for 16 years, and the level of play is getting higher," he remarked. "The Korean team has great fighting spirit and motivation, and they will be our toughest opponent."

Taiwan manager Lin cited two disadvantages for his team, saying, "We don't have much international game experience, and the infielders are not used to playing on artificial turf." Tokyo Dome has a Field Turf surface.

Manager Kim of Korea indicated his club started preparing a bit late. "We had to wait for our major leaguers, but we expect to go into the WBC at 100 percent," he said.

Lefebvre admitted his team "was embarrassed" by the lopsided loss to Yomiuri in which his pitchers suffered through a 10-run ninth inning. "We need to forget about that game and re-group," he said, looking forward to a better performance on Friday after a day of rest on Wednesday and a two-hour workout on Thursday.

The first three tune-up games were played before sparse crowds of fewer than 4,000 spectators at the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome, with 12,611 paying to see the Team Japan game against Yomiuri. However, much bigger crowds are expected for the "hon mono" (real thing), especially the night games involving the home team.

The WBC schedule opens with Korea vs. Taiwan at 11:30 a.m. Japan time on Friday, March 3. That is followed by Japan vs. China at 6:30 p.m. JST. On Saturday, March 4, it's China vs. Korea at 11 a.m. and Japan vs. Taiwan at 6 p.m. The Asia Round ends on Sunday, March 5, with Taiwan vs. China at 11 a.m. and Japan vs. Korea at 6 p.m.

(Note: Names were presented as they appear in the official game program, rather than in their Americanized form.)