Japan favoured to win World Baseball Classic

Two-time defending champion Japan is hoping to make it three World Baseball Classic titles in a row, having won over Cuba in the inaugural event in 2006 and over South Korea in 2009.

Defending champion has no major leaguers on roster

Seiichi Uchikawa, right, Ichiro Suzuki and Norichika Aoki (23) exult in winning the World Baseball Classic on March 23, 2009. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

They'll play in the Far East and Far West and in the Caribbean, too. Wherever they are, Miguel Cabrera and R.A. Dickey and dozens of all-stars in the World Baseball Classic know the team to beat: two-time winner Japan.

The Japanese are hoping to defend their title in the third edition of baseball's global tournament, having topped Cuba in the inaugural Classic in 2006 and South Korea three years later.

To do it, Japan, with a roster that doesn't include a single player from Major League Baseball, will have to win two rounds at home and then the semifinals and final at San Francisco's AT&T Park.

In its way will be an American team led by Dickey, Ryan Braun and Joe Mauer, trying to make up for a couple of underwhelming WBC showings — and featuring Joe Torre's return to the top step of the dugout.

Team USA has plenty of motivation. The Americans didn't get out of the second round in 2006, then lost in the semifinals to Japan three years later.

"We'll probably be disappointed if we don't make it to San Francisco," said Giants right-hander Ryan Vogelsong, slated to be the No. 2 starter in the U.S. rotation.

"First and foremost, we're focused on getting there."

Japan's pro teams are known for their rigorous spring training regimen, which typically begins a couple of weeks before the major-league clubs and feature all-day workouts with just a short break to eat.

"It's such a dedicated group of players," Torre said. "I go back to going over to Japan as a member of the Mets back in '74 and just noticing and, at that time, I didn't think necessarily that the Japanese could play at our level, maybe stature-wise.

"Even though their game was clean and disciplined, it just didn't look like they were as good as we were. That's certainly has changed."

'Fills my heart'

Rockies slugger Carlos Gonzalez will play alongside San Francisco's Pablo Sandoval and Triple Crown winner Cabrera for Venezuela. The World Series champion Giants have had to plan carefully this spring to get through the Cactus League with much of their roster headed to the WBC — Marco Scutaro on Venezuela, Angel Pagan and Andres Torres on Puerto Rico, Vogelsong and reliever Jeremy Affeldt on the U.S. team, closer Sergio Romo pitching for Mexico.

"It's my first time representing and I'm really looking forward to doing it," Pagan said. "The first two Classics, I couldn't do it because I was either trying to make a team or I was trying to be the everyday player.

"It fills my heart to go out there and play in front of my countrymen and in front of my family. I did it when I played in New York and Puerto Rico, but it's not the same when you're wearing the P.R. jersey."

And CarGo sure is confident in Venezuela's chances.

"I don't think we need practice — Venezuela doesn't need practice," he said. "Japan, they train together for a long time and get prepared for that.

"We don't really get prepared for that … put the uniform on, let's play."

'Represent your team'

In all, 45 major-league all-stars, including seven MVPs, were on the final WBC rosters.

Many MLB players are torn between playing for their country or playing for the club that signs their paycheque, especially those who might be on the bubble of making a major league roster or earning a starting job.

Gonzalez said the Venezuelans feel tremendous pressure to take part in the WBC, yet he understands why Seattle ace Felix Hernandez has passed after signing a $175 million US, seven-year contract earlier this month that made him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball.

"You have to represent your team," Gonzalez said. "You see all the news about King Felix not playing for Venezuela and the whole country changes, they get upset that you're not going to play for your country.

"They think it's all about the money, but you know what? We've been working since we were 16 years old and we came from Venezuela to represent — I think I made the right choice."

'Putting on your Sunday best'

The inaugural 2006 Classic featured a pool-play format, while 2009 was double-elimination — and this one will be a combination of both. The first round will be pool play, with the top two teams advancing. The second round is double-elimination, and the top two teams from each group will reach the semifinals.

The Americans will play their round-robin games at the Arizona Diamondbacks' Chase Field in Phoenix. The other first-round groups will play in: Fukuoka, Japan; Taichung, Taiwan; and, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

"The guys who have played this before were excited to get back to it," Torre said. "I think it's still something to get a little used to.

"Let's admit it, you play the USA team, MLB, even though there are a number of MLB players obviously playing for other countries, it's like putting on your Sunday best, you know. We're excited because we have a chance to beat them at their own game, so to speak."

Semifinals will be played March 17-18, with the championship March 19 in the Giants' waterfront ballpark. That's where Sandoval cleared the fences three times in a Game 1 World Series win against the Tigers. The guy known as Kung Fu Panda hopes to find his groove again for his country. If he does, and his nation wins it all, Sandoval will be World Series, Venezuelan and WBC titles to his credit.

"I'm trying to get the Triple Crown," Sandoval said.