Classic kicks off with Japan vs. China

Defending champions enjoy home-field advantage in Tokyo

China will be counting on the offense, defense and leadership of shortstop Ray Chang, a farmhand in the Pirates organization. (Junko Kimura/Getty Images)

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TOKYO -- Japan is the heavy favorite to defeat China as the two teams open the 2009 World Baseball Classic on Thursday at 4:30 a.m. ET in Game 1 of Pool A, the Asia Round, at Tokyo Dome.

The developing Chinese club, managed by Terry Collins, will take its best shot against a talent-stacked Japanese team, but if the score of their meeting in the 2006 Classic is any indication, it could be a short evening.

In a game called in the eighth inning by the mercy rule, Japan trounced China, 18-2, three years ago and went on to win the inaugural event. China, then managed by Jim Lefebvre, was eliminated after losing two more one-sided games, to Korea and Chinese Taipei, and it may not be any easier this time.

"Our players are jet-lagged," said Collins after a flight from the U.S. The Chinese will also have to overcome the unfamiliarity of playing in Tokyo Dome, where a sellout crowd of more than 42,000 is expected. For the 2006 Japan-China game, only 15,869 fans showed up.

Collins indicated that he will probably start right-hander Lu Jiangang, who pitched in Japan for the Chunichi Dragons farm team from 1999 to 2002.

Samurai Japan manager Tatsunori Hara named Yu Darvish his Game 1 starter, saving Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hisashi Iwakuma for later games in Pool A and beyond.

There is anxiety on the Japan side about outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who seems to be in a slump. In tuneup games, Suzuki hit just .130, but Hara is not concerned.

"He has had slumps before and can break out of it at any time. I am not worried about him at all," said Hara.

China will be counting on the offense, defense and leadership of shortstop Ray Chang, a Pittsburgh Pirates farmhand who said that his club has to stay in the game and avoid a second-half collapse, as happened in both of its tuneups.

"We seem to start out OK and make it a close game until about the sixth inning, but we let it get away after that," said Chang. "We have to sustain our concentration and play our best throughout the entire nine innings if we expect to win."

The team that loses Game 1 goes on to play the team that loses Friday's Game 2, between Korea and Chinese Taipei, on Saturday afternoon. The winners of Game 1 meet in Game 4 on Saturday night.

Wayne Graczyk is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.