Baseball: New-look Japan aims for Classic three-peat

A Japanese squad powered by domestic league players and without Major League Baseball talent is in position to bring a third consecutive World Baseball Classic crown back home to Asia.

Japan will face Puerto Rico on Sunday in the first of two semi-finals with Dominican Republic and the Netherlands meeting in the other on Monday. Winners will meet in the championship final on Tuesday.

Unlike previous Classics, where a few top major leaguers joined Japan League talent, such US club stars as Ichiro Suzuki and Yu Darvish are absent as Japan tries to repeat the success of the 2006 and 2009 Classics.

This rag-tag group of domestic stars have got the job done several different ways -- playing small ball to beat Taiwan 4-3 on March 8, then exploding for six home runs in a 16-4 rout of the Netherlands two days later.

The talk Saturday centered on hitting and execution and the innovative ways Japan has been able to score runs.

"They put a lot of emphasis on the little things, on mastering the obvious, and they don't make many mistakes, offensively or defensively," said Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez.

Japanese manager Koji Yamamoto said during practice on Saturday that he doesn't know much about Puerto Rico but has watched them play on television.

"I want to have Japanese-style baseball," Yamamoto said. "I have just been focusing on how to win. I don't know what is going to happen but it is really exciting."

Carlos Santana hit a home run and Wandy Rodriguez pitched six innings of two-hit ball as the Dominican Republic beat Puerto Rico 2-0 on Saturday to earn the top seed of their second round bracket.

That booked the Dominicans againstr the Dutch on Monday while Japan will be facing a tired Puerto Rico team that is coming off Saturday's loss.

Japan will have had four days rest since beating Netherlands 10-6 on Tuesday.

Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who became a US star with the Boston Red Sox, was named the Classic tournament Most Valuable Player in 2006 and 2009.

Japan beat Cuba 10-6 in the 2006 final with Suzuki scoring three of Japan's runs.

Three years later, Japan beat South Korea 5-3 in the final. Japan had a 3-2 lead in the ninth when South Korea scored a run off pitcher Darvish to send the game into extra innings.

In the 10th, Suzuki drove in two on a single to give Japan a 5-3 victory.

Without Darvish, Matsuzaka or Suzuki, the Japanese are still getting the job done with good coaching and smart baseball.

Yamamoto says it has been a tension-filled tournament so far.

"I have been feeling pressure from the first pool," he said. "And I have survived up to here."

Japan has gone 5-1 with a 3.98 earned-run average so far in the Classic. As a team they are batting .294 with a .391 on-base percentage and a .453 slugging mark. They have eight home runs in six games.

Catcher Shinnosuke Abe, who plays for the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, is batting .250 with two homers and seven runs batted in for the tourney while pitcher Kenta Maeda, who plays for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, is 2-0 with 10 scoreless innings.

Maeda said he recently received some tips from talking to Japanese major leaguers who played in prior Classics.

"They said it may look easy from the outside but there are things you never really understand until you do it for yourself," Maeda said.

Maeda declined to comment when asked Saturday if he hopes to one day pitch for a team in North America. He is getting a taste of that now and is excited to pitch at the home of the 2012 World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

"As I walked out to the ground, it is very different," he said. "I had a fresh feeling that 'Oh, this is the ground of a major baseball team.'"