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Japan heads to semifinals thinking three-peat

Japan heads to semifinals thinking three-peat

Japan has already conquered the baseball world in two California cities.

Now's the chance to add San Francisco to the list.

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Team Japan has already won the World Baseball Classic in San Diego (2006) and Los Angeles (2009), and it will attempt to defend its title at AT&T Park this weekend.

Japan's first test will be a semifinal matchup against Puerto Rico on Sunday night at 9 p.m. ET, a result that will put one tired team against another that's well rested. All Classic games can be seen on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes.

Japan has been idle in tournament play since March 12, while Puerto Rico lost a tight 2-0 game to the Dominican Republic on Saturday.

None of Japan's players has played in the Major Leagues, but they have had a successful run so far through the tournament. Japan beat Brazil and China, but fell to Cuba in the opening round before beating Chinese Taipei and the Kingdom of the Netherlands -- the latter team twice -- in the next round.

Edwin Rodriguez, manager of Team Puerto Rico, spoke Saturday about his team's challenge.

"We've been watching them for years, and they're the two-time champions of the WBC for a reason," he said. "They put a lot of emphasis on the little things, on mastering the obvious, and they don't make many mistakes, offensively or defensively. So we have to go out there and almost play a perfect game and try to attack the hitters and be aggressive at the plate, take the next base."

Daisuke Matsuzaka was the Most Valuable Player of the 2006 and the 2009 edition of the World Baseball Classic, but Japan has a different look this time around. Japan has gone 5-1 with a 3.98 ERA through six games, and Kenta Maeda is 2-0 in 10 scoreless innings.

Maeda, who won the Sawamura Award as Japan's best pitcher in 2010, has allowed just two hits and has struck out 15 hitters in the tournament. Kenji Otonari has given Team Japan a 3.00 ERA in his first two starts, and Masahiro Tanaka has a 2.57 ERA in four appearances.

Japan has stood out on offense this year, and it scored at least 10 runs in each of its victories over The Kingdom of the Netherlands. Japan, as a team, is batting .294 with a .391 on-base percentage and a .453 slugging mark, and it has eight home runs in six games.

Catcher Shinnosuke Abe, who plays for the Yomiuri Giants of Japan's Central League, is batting .250 with two home runs and seven RBIs in the tourney. Hirokazu Ibata, a second baseman for the Chunichi Dragons, is batting .684 (8-for-14) through his first five games in the Classic.

Puerto Rico has logged a 3.10 ERA through its first seven games and has allowed just two home runs. Catcher Yadier Molina sat out Saturday and should be fresh for Sunday's game, and Angel Pagan -- who also plays for the Giants -- will be at home in AT&T Park.

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

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