FUKUOKA, Japan (AP) — Japan will look to replace the likes of Ichiro Suzuki and Yu Darvish with a new generation of young talent as it bids to capture a third straight World Baseball Classic title.
Suzuki, a key player when Japan won the tournament in 2006 and 2009, opted to sit out the third edition of baseball's global tournament. Shortly after Suzuki announced his decision, Darvish, Norichika Aoki and just about every other Japanese player in Major League Baseball followed suit.
Now Japan will get a chance to see how its up-and-coming pros from home stack up when the two-time defending champions begin their title defense on Saturday at Fukuoka Dome against Brazil.
Japan is in Group A with 2006 runner-up Cuba, China and a Brazil team managed by Hall of Famer Barry Larkin.
Japan could struggle to score runs without being able to rely on Suzuki in the leadoff spot. While the team has several players who can hit home runs, Koji Yamamoto's squad will look to manufacture runs by getting runners on and moving them over. The sacrifice bunt will be used early and often.
Hayato Sakamoto, a 24-year-old shortstop who helped the Yomiuri Giants win the Japan Series last year, will be the leadoff hitter for Japan.
"There are many young players so we need to stick to the Japanese style of baseball," Yamamoto said. "Moving the runner over and getting good results from our pitchers. As long as we do that, we should be fine."
Strong pitching will be a main feature of Japan's team. Yamamoto has a solid 13-member pitching staff led by 24-year-old right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who is expected to start Japan's opener.
Just about every pitcher on the staff except for the closers has experience starting, so Yamamoto won't hesitate to go to his bullpen early if needed.
A big challenge for Japan's pitchers will be adjusting to the WBC ball, which they say is slippery compared to the ball used in Japan.
Two teams from the group will advance to the March 8-12 second round at Tokyo Dome with a chance to move on to the March 17-19 championship round in San Francisco.
Japan and Cuba will be heavily favored to advance to the second round. Once two teams from Group B reach the Tokyo round, things become more difficult as only two teams go to the United States. South Korea, Australia, the Netherlands and Taiwan are in Group B.
Cuba didn't make it out of the second round four years ago and will be looking to restore its reputation as an international baseball power.
Like Japan, Cuba will be without some of its top names. Pitcher Aroldis Chapman and outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, both stars on the '09 Cuban team, have since defected and are playing in the major leagues for the Reds and A's, respectively.
Cuba's roster does include three players who took part in the first two first two tournaments — outfielder Frederick Cepeda, infielder Yulieski Gourriel and left-handed pitcher Norberto Gonzalez.
Under Larkin, Brazil shocked the baseball world when it ousted Panama in qualifying on its home turf. The former Cincinnati Reds shortstop was asked to manage the team by the Brazilian Baseball Federation after he conducted MLB-run baseball clinics for young Brazilian players last year.
Larkin know his team faces a huge challenge against Japan in the opener.
"We just have to stick to the basics and play like we did against Panama," Larkin said. "It doesn't matter whether you are playing Japan or Panama. You have to play your game."
China got a setback when Kansas City Royals starter Bruce Chen scrapped plans to pitch for the team in this year's tournament. Chen, who is of Chinese descent, grew up in Panama and pitched for that country in the first two tournaments.
While China's team is still very much in the developmental stages, the team has a lot of MLB pedigree at the coaching level and will be managed by former Seattle Mariners skipper John McLaren. Former MLB pitcher Bruce Hurst is the pitching coach, while former MLB manager Art Howe is the hitting coach.