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Japan's big guns vow to deliver at WBC

JAPAN'S big-name Major League Baseball players are confident they can raise their game once the serious business of the World Baseball Classic begins next month.

Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka were virtual non-factors in Japan's two easy victories over Australia in Osaka earlier this week.

Japan crushed Australia 8-2 and 11-2 in back-to-back wins.

"I'm still watching the ball with my eyes," Suzuki told the Japanese media yesterday. "I have to start feeling it more with my body."

A two-time American League batting champion and holder of MLB's record for most hits in a season with 262 in 2004, Suzuki was unable to take Australia's modest pitchers deep.

"The ball has got to start flying soon," said the 35-year-old. "Being at 100 percent is difficult but I should be able to push it to 60 or 70 percent.

"I'm only around halfway there at the moment but the team has a lot of potential."

Matsuzaka was yanked in the second innings on Wednesday following a shaky start, the Red Sox pitcher giving up two runs and five hits before being benched.

"I threw some good stuff and I threw some bad stuff," he said. "It was good to find things that still need to be tweaked. I'll make those adjustments for the next game.

"I was trying to put my foot on the accelerator right from the start. I got a lot of power when I tweaked things during the game. My fastball was solid so that's given me confidence."

Japan was the surprise winner of the inaugural WBC in 2006, Matsuzaka being named the tournament's MVP before his big-money move to Boston.

Further warm-up games take place in Tokyo starting this weekend against Japanese professional teams before the Asian WBC preliminaries begin on March 5.

Pool A in the 16-team competition also involves China, Chinese Taipei and reigning Olympic champion South Korea with all the games taking place at Tokyo Dome.

New Japan coach Tatsunori Hara, under pressure after the team's failure to win a medal at last year's Beijing Olympics, promised his players would peak at the right time.

"We're still finding our rhythm," he said. "I'm very satisfied. We'll start treating every game from now as a serious game and look to step up our best form."


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