Japan tries make it 3 WBC titles in a row

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. (AP) - They’ll play in the Far East and the Far West _ and in the Caribbean, too. Wherever they are, Miguel Cabrera and R.A. Dickey and dozens of All-Stars in the World Baseball Classic know the team to beat: two-time WBC winner Japan.

The Japanese are hoping to defend their title in the third edition of baseball’s global tournament, having topped Cuba in the inaugural Classic in 2006 and South Korea three years later.

To do it, Japan _ with a roster that doesn’t include a single player from Major League Baseball _ will have to win two rounds at home and then the semifinals and final at San Francisco’s AT&T Park.

In their way will be an American team led by Dickey, Ryan Braun and Joe Mauer, trying to make up for a couple of underwhelming WBC showings _ and featuring Joe Torre’s return to the top step of the dugout.

Team USA has plenty of motivation. The Americans didn’t get out of the second round in 2006, then lost in the semifinals to Japan three years later.

“We’ll probably be disappointed if we don’t make it to San Francisco,” said Giants right-hander Ryan Vogelsong, slated to be the No. 2 starter in the U.S. rotation. “First and foremost, we’re focused on getting there.”

Japan’s pro teams are known for their rigorous spring training regimen, which typically begins a couple of weeks before the major league clubs and feature all-day workouts with just a short break to eat.

“It’s such a dedicated group of players. I go back to going over to Japan as a member of the Mets back in 74 and just noticing and at that time I didn’t think necessarily that the Japanese could play at our level, maybe stature-wise,” Torre said. “Even though their game was clean and disciplined, it just didn’t look like they were as good as we were. That’s certainly has changed.”

Rockies slugger Carlos Gonzalez will play alongside San Francisco’s Pablo Sandoval and Triple Crown winner Cabrera for Venezuela. The World Series champion Giants have had to plan carefully this spring to get through the Cactus League with much of their roster headed to the WBC _ Marco Scutaro on Venezuela, Angel Pagan and Andres Torres on Puerto Rico, Vogelsong and reliever Jeremy Affeldt on the U.S. team, closer Sergio Romo pitching for Mexico.

“It’s my first time representing and I’m really looking forward to doing it,” Pagan said. “The first two Classics I couldn’t do it because I was either trying to make a team or I was trying to be the everyday player. It fills my heart to go out there and play in front of my countrymen and in front of my family. I did it when I played in New York and Puerto Rico but it’s not the same when you’re wearing the P.R. jersey.”

And CarGo sure is confident in Venezuela’s chances.

“I don’t think we need practice _ Venezuela doesn’t need practice,” he said. “Japan, they train together for a long time and get prepared for that. We don’t really get prepared for that … put the uniform on, let’s play.”

In all, 45 big league all-stars, including seven MVPs, were on the final WBC rosters.

Many MLB players are torn between playing for their country or playing for the club that signs their paycheck _ especially those who might be on the bubble of making a major league roster or earning a starting job.

Gonzalez said the Venezuelans feel tremendous pressure to take part in the Classic, yet he understands why Seattle ace Felix Hernandez has passed after signing a $175 million, seven-year contract earlier this month that made him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball.

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