Japan’s fans want title; Sox fans hope for healthy players

Posted March 20, 2009, at 10:58 p.m.

Red Sox fans will hold their breath as the World Baseball Classic enters its final weekend in Los Angeles.

Dustin Pedroia is back on the field for the Sox. He returned to the team from the World Baseball Classic because of a left abdominal strain.

Kevin Youkilis is not back on the field. He returned from the WBC to the Sox with a wrapped ankle. When he will play again is unclear.

Youkilis admitted that the ankle has bothered him for a month, but feared if he spoke of it he would not have been able to play in the WBC, something he desperately desired.

Youkilis hit only .182 for the United States, but drove in six runs with three home runs. His injury has left USA without a regular first baseman when they take on Japan in a semifinal elimination game Sunday night.

Sox fans and management will hope the injury bug at the WBC is over for their players because expected to pitch for Japan Sunday is the Boston’s own Daisuke Matsuzaka.

As each round of the WBC has progressed, the allowed pitches for starters has increased from 70 to 85 to 100 for the games this weekend.

Matsuzaka has started two games, working 10 innings, surrendering two runs on nine hits with two walks and nine strikeouts. He will want to pitch to the limit on Sunday.

Make no mistake, Matsuzaka may pitch for the Sox, but Japan is his home and for this very good Japanese team this game against the Americans is their World Series.

Even if Japan advances to the final in its defense of the WBC championship it won in 2006, competing against the U.S. is how it will measure its success in this tournament.

One expert on Asian baseball who is working with me in broadcasting the WBC games told me if you told the Japanese they would have to cancel their own league championships and travel half way around the world to play the U.S., there would be no hesitation in doing it.

As repeated often during this WBC, the U.S. baseball fan does not understand how seriously this tournament is taken by teams outside this country. That creates the tension of MLB fans worrying more about their team players’ health than winning in the WBC.

That is precisely the opposite view of those teams from outside the United States.

The Japanese now feel they are close, dare we say equal, in talent to what we see in the U.S. There may not be the depth of talent, but those on this Japanese team, and they will do anything to make the national team, are outstanding when measured by any standard.

This team is nicknamed the Samurai in memory of the legendary warriors of Japanese history. They have come to the WBC to battle with the adrenaline pumping.

One measure of how serious this game is to Japan is heard in the words of their 22-year-old pitching phenomena Yu Darvish. “I will quit baseball if I have to go to the Major League,” he said. “It is not good at all for the Japanese children. Japanese baseball needs some top players to attract children. I have no interest at all in the Major League.”

Sunday night is about winning and Dice-K is their ace. Sox fans will hope he finishes healthy, Japan will hope he throws 100 quality pitches and Team USA will try to beat the Red Sox star.

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