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What Nashida isn’t worried about, though, is what takes place between the white lines. His squad has already booked a place in the WBC championship round, March 17-19 in San Francisco, and with traditional power Cuba already eliminated _ by the Netherlands, no less _ Japan’s path to a third straight WBC title game looks clearer.

“You can’t imagine how big the game is there,” Valentine said. “When I was managing in 2006, we lost something like nine players to the national team, then had to wait an extra week or two before they came back for games because they had to be congratulated by the prime minister. Imagine letting guys go for that long over here. MLB would be apoplectic.”

It won’t happen anytime soon. That’s part of the reason the U.S. team had little success in the first two installments of the WBC and why American fans have been lukewarm about the tournament since.

“People here just figured we were going to be like the Dream Team at the Olympics, like we should win every game by the mercy rule. And when that didn’t happen, we came up with excuses like, `We didn’t really try’ or whatever,” Valentine said. “So the reaction this time will be interesting because there’s no longer any question about how much everybody else in the world is trying.”

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.