FUKUOKA — When Japan and Cuba square off on Friday for the first of two international friendlies, it will be more about just getting acquainted.
|Ready for action: Japan shortstop Hayato Sakamoto practices on Thursday at Yahoo Dome. KYODO|
The two teams will be in the same first-round group in the World Baseball Classic, held at Fukuoka Yahoo Dome in March, and will be the favorites to advance to the second round at Tokyo Dome.
Japan manager Koji Yamamoto is going to need more of his domestic-based players to bring their best game now that half of the six big leaguers he wanted have turned him down.
"I want each player to come out and show what they do best against some very tough competition," he told a press conference Thursday after his Samurai Japan team practiced for two hours.
"The team is coming together and they are in high spirits. Now it's time to fight. This game is going to be important experience for all of them."
Cuba manager Victor Mesa, on the other hand, said most of his squad for next spring is already decided. His goal is to work out the kinks in the team's second straight international series, after splitting a pair of one-run games in Taiwan recently.
"I left four of our top-class pitchers in Cuba, but 90 percent of the men here will be with us in March," Mesa said. "We had tough games in Taiwan, and these games against a tough opponent can only help us make the adjustments we need if we are to win the WBC."
"Obviously, we rate Japan very highly. They won the previous WBCs and beat us in the process. They have earned everyone's respect."
The Cubans are No. 1 in the International Baseball Federation rankings while Japan is third, after the United States.
"The Cubans take full swings, they play at full power, they pitch at full power," said Chunichi Dragons shortstop Hirokazu Ibata, at 37 the oldest player on Yamamoto's roster. "About 10 years ago, I played against them in Cuba. It can be a little scary."
Perhaps the scariest man among the visitors is outfielder Alfredo Despaigne, Cuba's league MVP last season. Despaigne's homer was the difference in his team's 1-0 victory in Taiwan that tied their series.
Thinking of ways to get Despaigne out in March will be the task of Yomiuri Giants and Japan captain Shinnosuke Abe, who on Wednesday became the first player to win Japan's prestigious Matsutaro Shoriki Award in 12 years.
Hampered by leg and ankle troubles during the Giants' run to their Japan Series championship, Abe will, however, be a close observer of the Cuban batters.
"I haven't really thought of a plan for these games as I'm not expected to catch," he said. "But during the games, I'll be taking mental notes and getting valuable impressions of their players."
Abe said that he and the others in the squad were just beginning to feel like a team.
"Today we practiced together for the second time," he said. "And the guys are beginning to sound like teammates. Still, that's just practice. Once we're in a game tomorrow that talk specifically about the game is going to be a huge factor in bringing us together."
Mesa acknowledge that while the Japanese play the game a little differently than his countrymen, he hopes his players can adopt at least one of Samurai Japan's characteristics.
"We have this image of the Japanese player as serious, extremely coachable, a guy who executes. Our goal is to win the WBC and we can learn from their way of doing things," Mesa said.
Japan is expected to start Softbank Hawks lefty Kenji Otonari on Friday in his home park. The second game will be played on Sunday in Sapporo.