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Defending champion Japan opens WBC with shutout


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TOKYO -- Ichiro Suzuki went hitless Thursday, yet Japan had enough offense for a 4-0 win over China in the opening game of the World Baseball Classic.

The defending WBC champions got solid pitching from starter Yu Darvish and a two-run homer from cleanup hitter Shuichi Murata in the third inning to defeat a much-improved China team.

"In my first at-bat I didn't get a hit, so I was just trying to get the runner in," Murata said. "I hit a home run in my first game, so that should give me some confidence for the rest of the tournament."

Playing before a near-capacity crowd of 43,428 at Tokyo Dome, Japan took a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the third. Norichika Aoki hit a run-scoring single to center field before Murata connected on a two-run homer to left field off China starter Li Chenhao, who took the loss.

Japan widened its lead to 4-0 in the sixth when Kosuke Fukudome came home from third on a balk by reliever Sun Guogiang.

Despite the satisfying win, Suzuki's struggles at the plate are a concern for Japan. Suzuki, who batted 3-for-23 in exhibition games leading up to the tournament, returned to the leadoff spot after batting third but still couldn't get a hit in five at-bats.

China's manager Terry Collins said his team caught a break facing the Seattle star in a slump.

"Ichiro can cause havoc if he gets on base and our pitchers were so focused on keeping him off base" Collins said. "We were fortunate that he didn't go 5-for-5. He's still the leader of that team."

Darvish, a 22-year-old right-hander, struck out three, walked one and gave up no hits over four innings to pick up the win.

Given the results of three years ago when China lost to Japan 18-2, Thursday's performance was an improvement. China's pitchers held Japan's star-studded lineup to five hits.

"Any time you can hold a lineup like that to five hits, you are doing a good job," Collins said. "I'm very pleased with the way our pitchers played tonight."

Japan is in Pool A of the 16-nation tournament, along with Olympic gold medalists South Korea, China and Taiwan.

The top two teams advance to the second round, which will be played in the United States along with the final on March 23 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

South Korea faces Taiwan on Friday with the winner taking on Japan on Saturday.

Japanese home run king Sadaharu Oh, who guided Japan to the championship three years ago, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Oh was unable to manage Japan in this year's tournament because of health concerns.

Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said he was pleased with the result, despite the low score.

"Our pitchers were very good," Hara said. "China's pitchers also did a very good job. I'm not entirely satisfied with four runs, we could have had more. But any time you get the win in international play, you are happy."

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