Asian quarterfinalists keep an eye on California

3/4/2006 - MLB

TOKYO -- The preliminaries are out of the way and so is political correctness.

Japan and Korea booked their spots in the quarterfinals with resounding victories on Saturday and now it is time to take care of some personal business. Sunday's day game will feature Chinese Taipei vs. China, while the Tokyo Dome finale pits Asian titans and longtime rivals Japan and Korea in the first round of a conflict that will spill over into California.

Korea demolished China 10-1 in Saturday's opener and Japan beat Chinese Taipei 14-3 in seven innings -- its second straight game curtailed by the tournament mercy rule.

Now it will be the Koreans' turn to step into the ring and see if they can be the first team capable of going nine rounds with manager Sadaharu Oh's heavyweights.

Daisuke Matsuzaka threw four tough innings to get the win and is now looking to establish bragging rights.

"I can't pitch, but I will be shouting the guys on," said Matsuzaka, who will now have to content himself with pitching in Anaheim, Calif., where Japan and South Korea will take on the two top teams from Pool B, which includes the United States.

"I want us to win so well that the Koreans feel they won't be able to beat us for a while."

The phrase echoed a similar statement by Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki, raising hackles the previous week when both teams were training in Fukuoka.

Oh emphasized that losing Sunday was not in the game plan.

"I think we feel we have to win all three games -- that we have to be the No. 1 team when we go to California," Oh said.

Jim Lefebvre, whose Chinese team has been shellacked by both Japan and Korea, was in no mood to be skewered for making unpopular predictions.

"It's going to be a great game, one of the best we've seen for a while," Lefebvre said. "Korea has some great power, and Japan has some great pitchers. I think Japan has more speed. But I'm not going to
predict because you get into trouble doing that.

"Those two teams are going to go to the States and are going to do well over there against some elite teams."

The game will pit a pair of former teammates, Korean slugger Seung-yeop Lee, who homered twice and drove in five runs Saturday against the SubMarine, right-hander Shunsuke Watanabe, whose hand nearly scrapes the mound with each under-arm delivery. The two were teammates for two years with the Japan champion Chiba Lotte Marines.

"Until recently, he and I were teammates," said Lee, who left Lotte over the winter for the Yomiuri Giants. "We are the same age and we are friends. Tomorrow after the game, I hope to celebrate with him regardless of the outcome of the game."

Friendship aside, things could be nasty on Sunday and since both clubs are assured of advancing, any scrapes or perceived slights will be remembered in their Pool 1 finale on March 15.

Korean captain Jong-beom Lee said that finishing in the top two in Anaheim is even more important.

"The team, the coaching staff, everyone knows the Asian round is important, but even more important is the American round, the second round," he said. "I think we can show some good results there."

The Koreans will go through the rest of the tournament without Kim Dong Joo, their cleanup hitter and starting third baseman, who hurt his shoulder diving into first base on Friday against Taiwan and has already had an operation at a Tokyo hospital.

"We all feel the responsibility to do well in his absence," said Lee Seung Yeop. "We want to do well for him. In the remaining games, Kim is with us in our hearts."

Show of respect

Chinese Taipei manager Hua-wei Lin said his club would give Japan all it had prior to their battle on Saturday, but that did not prevent the skipper and his men from paying tribute to Oh, whose Chinese heritage has helped made him a legend in the island state.

"This [the WBC] gives me the opportunity to be on the same field with Oh and battle it out," said Lin. "It is quite an honor."

Before the game, each player from Lin's team doffed his cap to Oh in respect, for the Japan manager, whose father was born in China and who has been a key figure in the development of baseball in Chinese Taipei.

"Personally, I was so happy to see that," Oh said after the game. "But one wonders if it affected them to do that before the game [rather than after]. If it is a good thing, it is because they acknowledge our status. By knowing our [Japan's] ability, and playing against us, they will learn that to be on an even footing with us will require great effort and practice.

"I hope this will be their great motivation."

Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.