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Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006

MLB stars hope to prove themselves during Nichibei

Staff writer

The plane has landed, and the first battle has begun.

The Major League Baseball All-Stars have a couple days to shake off jet lag before the real challenges begin -- namely Nichibei Yakyu.

The biannual competition between pros from Nippon Professional Baseball and MLB will begin Friday at Tokyo Dome, and Thursday, the MLB team will have a tuneup game with the Yomiuri Giants.

According to new San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who also managed the All-Star tour in 2004, playing in Japan is a useful learning experience for the MLB team, which includes Kenji Johjima and Tadahito Iguchi.

"We're seeing how great their players can be," he said. "We've seen that with (Johjima and Iguchi) as well as with Ichiro. There are good players here."

Bochy was the third manager named for the tour, succeeding Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who had to withdraw after complications from a foot infection.

Francona had been tapped after Ken Macha, MLB's first choice, was fired by the Oakland Athletics.

"I'm excited to be here, even if it is through unfortunate circumstances," Bochy said. "I know how much Terry Francona wanted to be here."

For Johjima and Iguchi, Nichibei Yakyu is a return home. Once standouts with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, the duo will play one game at Yahoo Dome as a part of the tour.

"It will be an honor to play in front of fans in my hometown," said Johjima. "I want to show them how I have improved since going to the majors."

After the exhibition game with the Giants, the series will play three games at Tokyo Dome from Friday through Sunday. Monday will be a travel day before play resumes Tuesday at Kyocera Dome before Wednesday's conclusion in Fukuoka.

Bochy briefly discussed his starting rotation as well, saying that San Diego Padres right-hander Chris Young (11-5, 3.46 ERA) would have the ball against Yomiuri and that Los Angeles Angels pitcher John Lackey (13-11, 3.56) would start Friday.

Others who made the trip across the Pacific were Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer and Twins closer Joe Nathan.

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