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Japanese media, American scouts can't get enough of Team Japan

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The press box was filled to overflowing Thursday at Scottsdale Stadium. So was the scouts section behind home plate.

Japan's World Baseball Classic team was the attraction, and huge turnout of both American scouts and Japanese media tells you a lot about the pressures and opportunities available to this group of Japanese league stars. They're playing for a Japanese public that demands success, but also for the eyes of American teams that may someday offer them millions.

Team Japan's first-round games were such a hit at home that one in three television sets were said to be tuned in. At times in the second round, the ratings were even higher, with 45 percent of all televisions tuned to the WBC.

More than 100 Japanese reporters and photographers attended Japan's Thursday exhibition game against the Giants, and even more are expected for Sunday night's semifinal game against one of the teams now playing second-round games in Miami (Team USA, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico). One Japanese newspaper had four full pages of coverage on Team Japan's first workout in Arizona on Wednesday.

The WBC is huge news in Japan, and no Japanese fan, player or coach needs to be reminded that Japan won the event each of the first two times it was held, in 2006 and 2009.

"These guys play with a lot of pressure," manager Koji Yamamoto said, through an interpreter.

Yamamoto's team includes no current major leaguers, and only one former major leaguer (Kazuo Matsui, the former Mets, Rockies and Astros infielder). Major leaguers such as Yu Darvish and Ichiro Suzuki, who have played in past WBC tournaments, turned down the chance to join Team Japan this time.

"I knew the situation from the get-go," the manager said. "When I was asked to manage, I knew there would probably be no major-league players. But you can see these guys growing with confidence. Although it's not easy [to play without the major-league stars], it's reality."

The first two WBC tournaments served to showcase Japanese pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka (in 2006) and Darvish (in 2009), and both later got big-money MLB contracts. Masahiro Tanaka is the top Japanese starter this year, and the talk is that he'll be posted to MLB next winter.

Tanaka started Thursday's game against the Giants, and his presence helped attract all the scouts. Tanaka, who allowed one run in two innings against the Giants, is on track to start the WBC final next Tuesday, if Japan makes it past the semifinal.

Kenta Maeda, who also is a possibility to be posted next winter, is expected to start the semifinal on Sunday.

"Our goal was to get here to the U.S. [for the championship round]," Yamamoto said. "Now that we're here, anything can happen."

Japanese journalists suggest that this team isn't nearly as strong offensively as the Japan teams that won the WBC the first two times. Japan averaged seven runs a game through the first two rounds of the WBC, but that number was inflated by two runaway wins over the Netherlands.

"It's not easy to win back-to-back tournaments," Yamamoto said. "Now, going for three in a row, there's a lot of pressure on our backs."

The pressure is obvious. Just look at how many reporters came from Japan to chronicle this try for three in a row.

But the potential rewards are obvious, too. Just look at how many MLB scouts are watching.

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