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Japan has high expectations, but Cuba poses test

Special to MLB.com

TOKYO -- Japan comes into the 2017 World Baseball Classic with the highest of goals. Success can only mean a win in the championship game at Dodger Stadium on March 22. Meanwhile, Japan's first opponent in WBC 2017, Cuba, is a passionate baseball nation with its sights set on its first Classic title.

Japan's semifinals loss to Puerto Rico in 2013 still sticks with folks here. The Japanese want to set things right, and they mean to show it right from the start, as their '17 journey begins with a first-round matchup with Cuba on Tuesday at the Tokyo Dome.

TOKYO -- Japan comes into the 2017 World Baseball Classic with the highest of goals. Success can only mean a win in the championship game at Dodger Stadium on March 22. Meanwhile, Japan's first opponent in WBC 2017, Cuba, is a passionate baseball nation with its sights set on its first Classic title.

Japan's semifinals loss to Puerto Rico in 2013 still sticks with folks here. The Japanese want to set things right, and they mean to show it right from the start, as their '17 journey begins with a first-round matchup with Cuba on Tuesday at the Tokyo Dome.

"To be first in the world, it's very important to win the first game and get started on the right foot," manager Hiroki Kokubu said after putting his team through its final pre-tournament workout Monday.

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

Kokubu named Chiba Lotte Marines right-hander Ayumu Ishikawa as his starting pitcher for the opener, and he predicted that pitching could carry Japan to success. Ishikawa will be opposed by Noelvis Entenza, a 27-year-old right-hander who pitches for Industriales in the Cuban league.

"I think the quality of the Japanese pitchers will be seen [Tuesday] by everyone," Kokubu said. "The power of our pitchers."

Ishikawa, 28, went 14-5 with a 2.16 ERA last year for the Marines. He will be taking the start which could have belonged to star right-hander Shohei Ohtani, before Ohtani was forced out of WBC 2017 because of a right ankle injury.

Video: Ohtani disappointed to miss World Baseball Classic

Entenza posted a 3.20 ERA in 12 appearances (11 starts) between Holguin and Industriales in '16, striking out 34 and walking 30 in 70 1/3 innings.

Japan won the World Baseball Classic in both 2006 and '09, and the Japanese are the only team to make the semifinal round in each of the first three tournaments. But the loss in '13 was disappointing enough that Japan overhauled the national team, known here as Samurai Japan, and named Kokubu as the manager.

"We have some players who have been working together for the last three years," he said. "As a manager, I have grown, but the results can tell a better story than I can."

Japan and Cuba have met four times before in the World Baseball Classic. Japan won in the 2006 final and twice in the '09 second round, while losing, 6-3, in a '13 first-round game after already qualifying for the second round.

Video: Japan tops South Korea in 2009 to win second Classic

Japan has won the first two games in each of the first three tournaments, but it faces a big test with the Cuba matchup as the first game. Japan and Cuba figure to be the two strongest teams in Pool B, with Australia and China filling out the field. The top two teams in Pool B will advance to the second round, also scheduled for the Tokyo Dome.

"We know the Japanese team is a very strong team, so we know how important this first game will be," Cuba manager Carlos Marti said.

Both teams have players who have been in the tournament before, and the Cuban team features two players who have played professionally in Japan.

Video: Morosi on Cuban players to look out for in WBC 2017

Outfielder Frederich Cepeda, who is playing in his fourth World Baseball Classic, spent two seasons with the Yomiuri Giants, who play their home games at the Tokyo Dome. Outfielder Alfredo Despaigne has played the past three seasons with the Marines, where he was a teammate of Ishikawa, the pitcher he'll face Tuesday.

"He is a very good pitcher, I know," Despaigne said. "Last year, he showed very good curveballs and sinkers, and he has a variety of good pitches."

Tournament rules allow pitchers to throw no more than 65 pitches in a first-round game, so depth will be key. The Japanese believe their pitching gives them an edge.

"Japanese pitchers are considered world class," right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano said. "I think if the starting pitcher can do the job, that's enough."

The Japanese players and management understand the pressure their team will feel from a public that expects another championship. Kokubu mentioned several times Monday that he needs to keep his team relaxed and calm for the opener, describing it as a "nervous game."

Opening against Cuba is a significant challenge.

"The game against Cuba will be the most important of the round," Kokubu said. "If we start [the tournament] with a good start, then we will be able to overcome any difficulties."

For Japan and Cuba, the journey begins Tuesday. The Japanese fully expect their journey to last all the way to Dodger Stadium and a win in the final. Anything less would not be considered success. For Cuba, the Classic will be about breaking through for a country at the forefront of the baseball world in its passion for the game and its exports to the Major Leagues.

The World Baseball Classic runs through March 22. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament is being distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games at Marlins Park, Tokyo Dome, Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Mexico, Petco Park, as well as the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.

Danny Knobler is a contributor to MLB.com.

Cuba, Japan