Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said Wednesday that right-hander Yu Darvish would be the starting pitcher against China in his team's opening game of the World Baseball Classic.

Japan will begin its defense of the WBC title on Thursday against China at Tokyo Dome.

"Yu Darvish is going to start," Hara said Wednesday. "His condition has been getting better and better as we get closer to the tournament and I'm excited to watch him pitch the first game for Japan."

The 22-year-old Darvish was 16-4 with a 1.88 ERA last season for the Nippon Ham Fighters.

In his only previous international experience, Darvish pitched for Japan at the Beijing Olympics but gave up four runs on seven hits in four innings as Japan was beaten 4-2 by Cuba in the preliminary round.

Japan, which finished fourth in Beijing, has five major league players on its roster including outfielder Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox.

Japan is in Pool A of the 16-nation tournament, joined by 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.

China is managed by former major league skipper Terry Collins, who also has managerial experience in Japan with the Orix Buffaloes.

Suzuki has been struggling at the plate in tuneup matches but Collins said China must keep the Seattle star in check.

"Ichiro is the inspirational leader of the team," said Collins. "He for sure is one of the guys we can't let do damage here. I know he has been struggling but it's only spring training."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.