Location: Tokyo Dome, Tokyo, Japan
The defending World Baseball Classic champions is the only WBC team with active major leaguers on its roster that are not necessarily the best players on the team. That's not a slight against Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka or Akinori Iwamura, all of whom helped lead Japan to the inaugural WBC title in 2006. Rather, Nippon Professional Baseball offers the highest level of play outside of the US, and the Japanese WBC squad is an All-Star team taken from those ranks. This gives the Japanese team the luxury of batting the Rays' Iwamura and Cubs' Kosuke Fukudome toward the bottom of the order and benching Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima in favor of Yomiuri Giants slugging backstop Shinnosuke Abe.
Japan has a deep, heavily left-handed lineup with equal parts speed and power, but what fuels the hopes of a repeat is Japan's pitching staff led by Matsuzaka and 22-year-old sensation Yu Darvish of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Right-handed starter Hisashi Iwakuma is coming off a dominant season for the Rakuten Golden Eagles (21-4, 1.87 ERA). Closer Kyuji Fujikawa, who didn't allow a run in the 2006 WBC, is coming off a four-year run of staggering dominance for the Hanshin Tigers (25-7, 1.12 ERA, 6.38 K/BB). If Japan's staff has a drawback, it's that all but three of its 12 pitchers are starters unaccustomed warming up quickly and coming in with men on base. Then again, given the pitch-limits being enforced (70 pitches in the first round, 85 in the second, 100 in the semi-finals and finals), Japan might just use two starters in tandem for their games in the first two rounds, reserving their three relievers in the highest-leverage situations.
Japan might have won the 2006 WBC, but Korea was the story of the inaugural Classic, from its futuristic little league uniforms (combining sky blue and block letters to great effect), to first baseman Seung-Yeop Lee's tournament-best five home runs, to a 6-0 record through the first two rounds, which included two defeats of the favored Japanese team. Unfortunately, Korea's first and only loss came at the wrong time, in the semifinals against Japan.
The Korean team enters the WBC having just won the gold in last year's summer Olympics in Beijing. Their Olympic competition wasn't as steep as it will be in this tournament, as the US squad was comprised entirely of minor leaguers and there was no Latin American entry other than silver medalist Cuba, but Korea still went 9-0 in Beijing, beating a well-stocked Japanese team and the Cuban national team twice each. That said, Korea will have to make its way through this year's WBC without three of its stars from 2006. Coming off a year interrupted by a thumb injury, Seung-Yeop Lee has opted to stay in camp with the Yomiuri Giants, and righty Chan Ho Park, who was second on the Korean team in innings and didn't allow a single run in the 2006 WBC, has opted to remain in Florida, where he's trying to win a place in the Phillies' rotation. Korea will also be without 2006 ace Jae Seo. As a result, the Korean roster features just two players who are members of teams outside of Korea, Indians outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and Tokyo Yakult Swallows reliever Chang Yong Lim. Righty starter Min-Han Son of the Lotte Giants is the sole returning star from the 2006 squad. Korea should have no problem advancing to Round 2, but they seem unlikely to get much further this year.
Chinese Taipei went 2-5 in the Beijing Olympics and will once again be playing without Yankee groundballer Chien-Ming Wang, who is by far the most accomplished Taiwanese baseball player, as well as the most famous man in Taiwan, but is returning from a broken foot. Chinese Taipei has a handful of minor leaguers on its roster, but only one of them, right-hander Sung-Wei Tseng from the Indians' system, has advanced as far as Class AA. Chinese Taipei crushed China in the 2006 WBC, but more recently lost to them in 12 innings in Beijing. Both will likely be eliminated before the weekend is over.
The professional Chinese Baseball League launched with a month-long season in 2002, meaning China was almost starting from scratch in the 2006 WBC. But subsequent efforts by Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball to foster the game there have started to produce results, among them China's 12-inning victory over Chinese Taipei in the Beijing Olympics and the signing by the Yankees of two Chinese minor leaguers (catcher Zhenwang Zhang and lefty reliever Kai Liu), both of whom are on China's roster. That said, the only member of Team China to have played a professional game in the States is shortstop Ray Chang, a prospect in the Pirates' system who was born in Kansas City. And there's only one man on the Chinese roster currently affiliated with an NBP team: right-hander Dawei Zhu, who is in the Saitama Seibu Lions' system.
Biggest difference maker:Yu Darvish, Japan.The 22-year-old, right-handed starter has dominated the Japanese Pacific League over the past two seasons, posting a combined 31-9 record with a 1.85 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 22 complete games while striking out 9.2 men per nine innings and holding opposing batters to a sub-.200 batting average. No team wants to have to face him in an elimination game.
Remember the name: Darvish. As it was for his rotation-mate Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006, the WBC is Darvish's audition for the major leagues. The half-Iranian Darvish has said he doesn't intend to ask the Fighters to post him any time soon, but he already has nothing left to prove in his home country.
Remember this name?:Jung Bong, Korea.The Seoul native made 45 relief appearances for the Braves and three starts for the Reds from 2002 to 2004. His major league career was subsequently derailed by injuries, but he won a gold medal with the South Korean team in Beijing last year and could prove to be an important lefty in Korea's bullpen in this tournament.