Unsung heroes bound to emerge

Lesser-knowns players will share Classic spotlight with stars

Hiroki Kuroda throws hard and combines his fastball with forkballs and sliders. (Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

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The baseball world knows all about Alex Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, Johnny Damon, Michael Young, Ichiro Suzuki and a bunch of other Major League All-Stars who have signed on to play in the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

But there will be times during the 17-day tournament when a scintillating defensive play, or a crucial hit, makes a virtual unknown an international hero.

That is one of the best things about the 16-team event that runs from March 3-20. You just never know when a player with a modest history in this kind of competition rises to the occasion and shares the spotlight with players with more impressive credentials.

While teams representing the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the United States could be loaded with big-league players, other teams, such as Canada, Australia and Mexico, could have a significant number of MLB players on their 30-man rosters. And teams from China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Italy, Japan, Korea, Panama, South Africa and The Netherlands might have a few -- or zero -- Major League players on its rosters.

Regardless of the makeup of any roster, some "unknown" players going into the tournament surely will make a name for themselves.

Here are some of the under-the-radar players to watch during the WBC:

Brendan Kingman, Australia: Kingman, 32, has been one of the premier hitters in Australian baseball over the last 15 years. He began in the Australian Baseball League as a teenager, playing with the Sydney Wave and Sydney Blues and was the ABL Most Valuable Player in 1998, batting .487 -- 100 points higher than the nearest rival -- and hitting 27 home runs.

During his nine-year ABL career, he had a .303 average and ranked second in career home runs and RBIs. He spent four years in the Florida Marlins farm system and three years in Seattle Mariners organization, reaching the Double-A level. In recent years has played for New South Wales and been an integral member of the club that won the Claxton Shield, the prized baseball competition in Australia.

Kingman was a member of the Australian team that won the 1999 Intercontinental Cup in Sydney and represented Australia at the Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Olympics. He provided the RBI single that saw Australia defeat Japan in the semifinals and advance to gold medal round. He also has also represented his country in the past two World Cups.

Yuliesky Gourriel, Cuba: Led Cuba to the World Cup championship in Holland last year with eight home runs and finished second in RBIs with 19 in eight games. He played for Cuba's gold medal team in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the World Cup championship teams in 2003 and '05.

Gourriel made his Cuban League debut in 2001 with the Sancti Spiritus and has been their regular third baseman ever since. He also played in the Cuban League finals with the Centrales team.

Michel Enriquez, Cuba: Enriquez has been a member of the Cuban National Team since 1999 and played on Cuba's 2004 Olympic championship team in Athens. He also participated in the World Cup in 2001, 2003, and 2005, two Intercontinental Cups, in 1999 and 2003, and was also part of two Pan American Games championship teams. He finished the '06 World Cup with a .500 batting average. He debuted in the Cuban League in 1997.

Hiroki Kuroda, Japan: Kuroda joined the Hiroshima Carp in 1997 and has recorded double-figure win totals in four consecutive years to establish himself as the team's ace. He throws hard and combines his fastball with forkballs and sliders.

Kuroda was selected as the Central League's Most Valuable Pitcher in 2005 when he led the league with 15 wins, ranked second with a 3.17 ERA and 212 2/3 innings, and placed third with 165 strikeouts.

He is a graduate of Uenomiya High School and Senshu University and was a setup reliever for Team Japan in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Akinori Iwamura, Japan: Iwamura is a strong all-around offensive and defensive player and started at third base for the Yakult Swallows since 2000. He batted .300 with 44 home runs and 103 RBIs in 2004 and .319 with 30 home runs and 102 RBIs in '05.

Iwamura was selected as a 2002 league All-Star and has won five Gold Glove Awards for defensive excellence. He is a graduate of Uwajima East High School (Ehime Pref.) and began his career with the BayStars in 1997. He also was a member of the NPB All-Star Team for 2004 series versus MLB All-Stars and has a .298 career batting average in nine seasons, hit 156 home runs and driven in 493 runs.

Kosuki Fukodome, Japan: Fukudome, the Chunichi Dragons' cleanup hitter, ranked second among Central League players with a .328 batting average in 2005. He has good speed and a strong throwing arm and broke into the league with a bang in 1999 with a .284 average and 16 home runs as the team won its league championship.

He led the league with a .343 average in 2002, preventing current New York Yankees star Hideki Matsui, then with Yomiuri Giants, from winning the Central League Triple Crown. He also ranked second in the league with 34 home runs in 2003. The three-time Gold Glove winner (2002, 2003, 2005) was selected on the Best Nine team as an outfielder in 2002 and '03. He was converted from infielder to outfielder after starting pro career and his international experience includes the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the '04 Games in Athens.

Diegomar Markwell, Netherlands: Markwell has pitched the last two seasons for DOOR Neptunus and was named as the Most Valuable Player of the 2005 Holland Series, going 2-0 and pitching 17 shutout innings.

He spent the 2003 season at Double-A New Haven in the St. Louis Cardinals organization following six seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system. Won a career-high 13 games at Double-A Tennessee in 2002 and is a nephew of Atlanta Braves star Andruw Jones.

Markwell's international experience includes the 2004 Games in Athens, the '05 European Championships in the Czech Republic, and the '05 World Cup in The Netherlands, where he went 3-0 in three starts and compiled a 2.01 ERA. He was selected to the All-Star team as the top left-hander.

Kirk Van't Klooster, Netherlands: Selected as the 2005 Dutch Major League Valuable Player. He played for league champion DOOR Neptunus and led the league with a .403 batting average, 44 runs, 71 hits, 15 doubles, and 105 total bases while ranking second with five home runs and 34 RBIs. He also won the league batting title with a .376 average in 2002 and placed third at .350 in '03. After a long career with DOOR Neptunus, he will play for DPA Kinheim in 2006.

Klooster has played 144 international games for The Netherlands since his debut in July 1998. He represented Holland in four consecutive World and European Championships and was selected to the All-Star team at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. He batted .395 and was selected as the best defensive player in the '05 World Cup in The Netherlands.

Francisco Campos, Mexico: Campos led the Mexican League with a 2.84 earned run average, three complete games, 152 innings, and 170 strikeouts in 2005 for Class AAA Campeche and was selected as the league's Pitcher of the Year for the second straight season.

He became the first pitcher in 48 years to finish first in wins (12), ERA (1.69) and strikeouts (99) in '04 and was selected as the Mexican League Most Valuable Player. He also led the league in strikeouts (125) in '02 and ranked first in complete games (8) and shutouts (3) in 2000.

All but 17 of his 243 professional appearances have been with Campeche. Campos originally was signed as a catcher by the Houston Astros in April 1991. He missed all of 1992 and '93 with injuries before signing with Campeche as a third baseman in 1994 and became a pitcher the following year.

Campos was signed by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2002 and drafted by the Chicago White Sox in '03 and currently is the property of the Florida Marlins while on loan to Campeche.

Tai-Shan Chang, Chinese Taipei: Batted .305 last season for the Sinon Bulls and is a .302 career hitter in the Chinese Baseball League with 154 home runs. He led the league in home runs in 2003 and '04. He is a six-time All-Star.

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.