Japan begins its WBC title defense versus Brazil

Mar 1, 2013 - 6:04 PM (Sports Network) - Two-time defending World Baseball Classic champion Japan begins its quest for another title on Saturday when it begins Pool A play against Brazil at the Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome.

After Japan rode the left arm of a relatively-unknown Daisuke Matsuzaka to a WBC title in 2006, Tatsunori Hara's crew needed some dramatics to take home the '09 crown over South Korea.

Japan had a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning of the championship game when the Koreans scored a run off Yu Darvish to send the game into extra innings. In the 10th, though, Ichiro Suzuki drove in two on a single to give Japan a 5-3 win.

Matsuzaka was again named MVP of the tournament, but he won't be pitching for the Japanese team this time around. In fact manager Koji Yamamoto will only have one former major leaguer on his roster in Kaz Matsui, as both Suzuki and Darvish have opted to skip the event this year.

Like Matsuzaka in '06, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Darvish in '09, this year's breakout star for Japan could be 24-year-old righty Kenta Maeda. He was a Sawamura Award winner in 2010, a honor bestowed upon the top starting pitcher in Nippon Professional Baseball each year.

But the player to watch will be infielder Hayato Sakamoto, who hit .311 with 14 home runs for the Yomiuri Giants last season. Sakamoto could make the jump to the majors in a few years.

Brazil, meanwhile, will be making its first-ever appearance at this event after qualifying for the tournament with a win over Panama. The most notable name from this Brazilian team might be their manager, Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin.

Major leaguer catcher Yan Gomes could have helped Brazil's chances, but he has opted to skip the event.

China and Cuba are also in this pool.

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