Japan not bowing before US, pressure

No Murata, but formidable Dice-K takes on Oswalt, Americans

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COMPTON, Calif. --- Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki didn't go as far as to call Japan the favorite when his country squares off against Team USA in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic at Dodger Stadium on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.

But he didn't call Japan the underdog, either.

"The feeling is just different this time," Ichiro said at Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academy in Compton on Saturday. "Last time Japan came to the United States, we were looking up at them, but not this time. I don't know why, but that's how this team is feeling."

In the last 13 meetings between the clubs, Japan has won six times. Team USA is riding a four-game winning streak, including a victory in its meeting in the 2006 Classic and two wins in the 2008 Summer Olympic games in Beijing.

It will be up to Daisuke Matsuzaka to break the streak when he takes the mound for Japan against USA's Roy Oswalt. Matsuzaka is 2-0 in this Classic, with a 1.80 ERA and nine strikeouts in 10 innings. Last Sunday, he struck out eight batters and allowed five hits in six innings in a 6-0 victory against Cuba. Overall, Matsuzaka is 5-0 with a 1.57 ERA in Classic play.

"[Matsuzaka] has a big heart and a lot of mental toughness," catcher Kenji Johjima said. "I'm sure he is doing the best preparation he can for [Sunday's game]. I'm going to look for the best pitches that will be effective early against the U.S. and go from there."

As for Oswalt, he is 1-0 with a 3.52 ERA in 7 2/3 innings. He hasn't pitched since a 9-3 win last Sunday against The Netherlands.

"I know Team USA is going to do its best, and so are we," Johjima said. "All we can do is play the game, the whole game. I'm going to look up and say a little prayer."

Japan will be without slugging corner infielder Shuichi Murata, the team's offensive leader, because of a torn right hamstring. In Murata's absence, Yasuyuki Kataoka, Munenori Kawasaki and newly added Kenta Kurihara are candidates to take his place at third base. Michihiro Ogasawara will likely play first base.

"If I get a chance to play, I'll try to do my job," Kurihara said. "I know our only goal is to win the championship. I want to make some kind of contribution to victory. I have mixed feelings, because I've replaced an injured Murata."

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