Japan ready to write new story

3/20/2009 - MLB

SAN DIEGO -- As a young boy, Japanese manager Tatsunori Hara often raced to the library after school to read his favorite book: the biography of former American slugger Babe Ruth.

Hara idolized the bombastic American icon, and the tales of Ruth begat a love of baseball that carried Hara through a 15-year playing career with the Tokyo Giants, and later a managerial career with those same Giants.

Even now, Hara modestly smiles at the thought of those days as a boy spent learning about the American baseball game through Ruth.

But in this World Baseball Classic, Hara is trying to build his own legacy and one for his country, perhaps one that young Japanese boys will read about in books in the future.

If Hara leads Japan to a victory against the United States on Sunday in the World Baseball Classic semifinals at Dodger Stadium, then a new era in Japanese baseball will take form.

Beating a team of major league players would surely be a boost for the country's baseball morale, one that took a hit last year when a team of American minor leaguers defeated Japan twice in the Beijing Olympics, including an 8-4 thumping in the bronze-medal game that was seen as an embarrassment in the home country.

"I'm very excited about playing against the Americans," Hara said. "When I first started watching the major leagues, I was very impressed. We needed to catch up to the major leagues and then we needed to go beyond that. That was my education and the circumstances of how I played baseball. I have a great deal of respect for American baseball, and here is a great opportunity sitting right in front of me."

Already light hitting, Japan's offense suffered a major loss on Thursday when slugger and cleanup hitter Shuichi Murata was lost for the rest of the tournament with a badly strained right hamstring suffered during Japan's 6-2 win against Korea in a game that determined seeding for this weekend's semifinals. So it's not only the U.S. team that has been hit by injuries.

In the top of the fourth inning, Murata laced a single to center field in what at first appeared to be an inconsequential play. On his turn around first base, Murata quickly grasped at his right hamstring and was in extreme pain. For several moments, he could not even walk.

Japan team trainers raced to first base to examine Murata, who was Japan's leading home run hitter (2) and leading run producer (7) entering Thursday's game. Murata was in so much pain that he could not walk by himself back to the dugout. He had to use the trainers as crutches in order to leave the field.

"His injury is a major injury," Hara said. "He's not in a condition to be able to play. ... Murata was very sad, and he said he was sorry about this."

The Japanese team asked for, and has received, permission from the Hiroshima Carp to replace Murata with slugger Kenta Kurihara; according to several Japanese news outlets, Kurihara is already on his way to Los Angeles to join the team.

Such a loss puts more pressure on Japan's pitching staff, which is talented enough to carry the load if the team's offense struggles. Japan boasts the WBC's best pitching depth heading into the weekend. Japan's 1.29 ERA is the best amongst the four finalists.

Sunday's likely starter is Daisuke Matsuzaka. For all his inconsistencies with the Boston Red Sox, he has pitched like an ace for Team Japan at the WBC. Matsuzaka is 5-0 in his WBC career (2-0 with a 1.80 ERA in this year's tournament). If Matsuzaka falters, Hara will have the option of using 2008 Pacific League Most Valuable Player Hisashi Iwakuma; in a relief role, Iwakuma shut out Cuba for six innings on Wednesday.

Hara said he will wait to name a starter for Sunday, though he hinted at starting Matsuzaka when asked if he was considering using phenom Yu Darvish, since most major leaguers are familiar with Matsuzaka but had never faced Darvish.

"We are going to stick with Japan's style," Hara said. "So just because the opponent is such, I am not going to think about changing. So we are going to do our best within our style."

By comparison, Jake Peavy, team USA's likely starter, is winless in four WBC starts. This year Peavy has allowed eight earned runs in just five innings. But Peavy did start the United States' 4-3 victory against Japan in the second round of the 2006 WBC. In that game, Peavy allowed three runs in five innings. One of those runs against Peavy came on a home run by outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.

To beat the United States without Murata, Japan will need a hot streak from the slumping Ichiro, who is hitting just .158 in the WBC. A 2-for-5 night on Wednesday made it appear as if Ichiro was breaking out of his slump. But Ichiro's lone hit on Thursday in five at-bats, a double to the gap in right-center field, came in the ninth inning with Japan already on the verge of a win.

"Ichiro is now playing like himself," Hara said after Wednesday's win against Cuba. "He started playing Ichiro-like games in this game, and also on the bench. I know Ichiro is a magnificent player. Sometimes I thought Ichiro may not be a human being, but [Wednesday] when I saw Ichiro being so happy, I realized that he is a human being after all."

If Japan defeats the United States on Sunday, thereby breaking any mythical grasp American baseball has over Japanese baseball, then Hara may also realize that Babe Ruth was also just a human being, after all.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.