Baseball: Japanese bid for 'Three-peat' in World Classic

Two-time defending champion Japan will launch its bid for a third World Baseball Classic crown without Major League Baseball talent when the 16-team global showdown opens Saturday in Asia.

Daisuke Matsuzaka sparked Japan to victory in the inaugural 2006 Classic and was named Most Valuable Player for the second time after Japan held off South Korea in 10 innings to capture the most recent crown in 2009.

But Matsuzaka, Ichiro Suzuki, Texas Rangers star pitcher Yu Darvish and other talent on US clubs will not be available to Japan manager Koji Yamamoto's squad, which opens Pool A first-round play against Brazil at Fukuoka.

"My ultimate goal is to help win a World Series with the Texas Rangers," Darvish said. "Getting ample rest is the most important thing for me right now as I prepare for the 2013 season."

Japan's lineup includes sluggers Shinnosuke Abe and Sho Nakata, 2012 Japan Series Most Valuable Pitcher Tetsuya Utsumi and pitchers Kenta Maeda, Masahiro Tanaka and Tadashi Settsu -- the past three winners of the Sawamura Award given to the Japan league's top hurler.

"There are many very talented players in Japan and I am confident this team will uphold Japan's great tradition in this event," Darvish said.

China and 2006 Classic runner-up Cuba will join Japan and Brazil in Pool A with two of those teams advancing to the second round at Tokyo along with two from Pool B, featuring host Taiwan, Australia, South Korea and Netherlands.

Canada, Mexico and Italy will join the host United States in first-round Pool D at Phoenix, Arizona from March 7-10, the same days Puerto Rico will host Pool C rivals Dominican Republic, Spain and Venezuela.

The top two from each North American pool advance to a second-round group at Miami and the top two teams from Tokyo and Miami advance to the semi-finals in San Francisco ahead of the March 19 championship final.

Cuba, whose amateur dynasty tops the global rankings, will be Japan's top threat in round one, even without outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who played last year for Oakland after defecting in 2011.

Jose Abreu led the Cuban league with a .394 average and hit 35 home runs last season while Alfredo Despaigne led the league with 36 homers and 105 runs batted in and veterans Frederich Cepeda and Yulieski Gourriel offer problems for rival pitchers.

Barry Larkin, a Hall of Fame major league shortstop, manages unfancied Brazil, which lacks catcher Yan Gomes, the first Brazilian major leaguer.

The only Chinese-heritage major leaguer, Bruce Chen, is not on China's roster, but a young China lineup will be guided by former major league manager John McLaren.

In Pool B, the Koreans will be favored despite not having such major league stars at Choo Shin-Soo while Taiwan will feature major league pitcher Wang Chien-Ming but not another US-based hurler, Baltimore's Chen Wei-Yin.

Australia could threaten with a veteran lineup and Colorado Rockies prospect David Kandilas in the outfield while the Dutch, which much talent from the Netherlands Antilles, shocked Dominican Republic twice in 2009 and placed fourth in 2008 at the Olympic farewell of baseball in Beijing.

The Dominicans are favored in Pool C after a first-round ouster in 2009 and have the major league talent to challenge for the crown with David Ortiz, Robinson Cano, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Bautista set to play.

Dominican pitchers from major league lineups include Edinson Volquez and Wandy Rodriguez, closer Fernando Rodney and relievers Jose Valverde and Octavio Dotel.

Venezuela also has a powerhouse lineup behind sluggers Miguel Cabrera, Pablo Sandoval, Elvis Andrus, Carlos Gonzalez and Miguel Montero and pitchers Felix Hernandez, Anibal Sanchez and Carlos Zambrano.

Puerto Rico's lineup features such major leaguers as Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan, Alex Rios and Yadier Molina.

A US squad that has disappointed with a first-round exit in 2006 and a 2009 semi-final loss will try again with four players back from 2009 including shortstop Jimmy Rollins and outfielders Shane Victorino and Ryan Braun.

New to the US lineup are second baseman Brandon Phillips, catcher Joe Mauer and outfielders Adam Jones and Giancarlo Stanton while first baseman Mark Teixeira is back after playing in the first Classic.

Canada and Italy are underdogs but Mexico figures to be formidable behind first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, pitcher Yovani Gallardo and closer Sergio Romo.