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Japan defends WBC titles

Japan will look to replace the likes of Ichiro Suzuki and Yu Darvish with a new generation of young talent as it bids to capture a third straight World Baseball Classic championship.

Ichiro, a key player when Japan won the tournament in 2006 and 2009, opted to sit out the third edition of baseball’s global tournament. Shortly after Ichiro announced his decision, Darvish, Norichika Aoki and just about every other Japanese player in Major League Baseball followed suit.

Now Japan will get a chance to see how its up-and-coming pros from home stack up when the two-time defending champions begin their title defense today at Fukuoka Dome in Fukuoka, Japan, against Brazil.

Japan is in Group A with 2006 runner-up Cuba, China and a Brazil team managed by Hall of Famer Barry Larkin.

Japan and Cuba will be heavily favored to advance to the second round.

Cuba didn’t make it out of the second round four years ago and will be looking to restore its reputation as an international baseball power.

Former Seattle Mariners skipper John McLaren is China’s manager. Former MLB pitcher Bruce Hurst is the pitching coach.

Clearing the bases

Pitcher Mark Prior has joined the Cincinnati Reds in his latest comeback bid. The move reunites Prior and Reds manager Dusty Baker. They were together with the Chicago Cubs several years ago, and Prior was an All-Star in 2003 when the team came close to reaching the World Series. … Texas Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz has been cleared of more serious issues after team doctors diagnosed a muscle strain in his chest. Cruz was sent to a hospital on Friday and the Rangers announced that several tests were negative. … Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Carl Crawford could miss his team’s April 1 opener against San Francisco after leaving spring training to have his elbow examined in Los Angeles. He had elbow ligament-replacement surgery last summer.