Japanese appearances in the Little League World Series International title game are as common as cardboard sleds on the bank beyond Lamade Stadium.
Today's game pitting Kitasuna LL of Tokyo vs. Aguadulce, Panama, is the 10th appearance by Japan in the 12 years since the Series expanded to 16 teams.
In the other dugout sits Aguadulce, which has gone farther than any Panama team in 19 years and any Latin American regional team since a Venezuelan squad won the world championship in 2000.
This disparity in recent Little League history has also shown up in the majors. In the past decade Japan has given the majors Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish, Hideo Nomo, Hideki Kuroda, Hideki Matsui well you get the idea.
Panama has given the majors fewer, including Mariano Rivera and Carlos Ruiz, who visited with the Aguadulce team earlier in the tournament.
But Japan has more, and no place has dominated the International field more than this country, which Little League broke off into its own region when it reorganized its Asian setup in 2007. The winning hasn't stopped, as the nation has put a team into the International final every year but one since, including the 2010 Edogawa Minami LL team from Tokyo that took the world championship.
This year's Japanese entry has looked the part. While the offense has struggled to produce steady contact hitting, the pitching has been outstanding in a 13-1 run differential through three games. A 7-0 win over Willemstad, Curacao, to open the tournament preceded a 2-0, 9-inning victory over Taoyuan County, Taiwan, before Wednesday's 4-1 win over Panama.
Kotaro Kiyomiya, a 6-foot lefty, has been the team's top offensive threat, making just two outs in 10 plate appearances. He is also the only player batting over .500 for a team that struck out 19 times in its first two games but cut that number to three in beating Panama.
Japan's .291 batting average, middle of the pack in this year's field, may show some lack in hitting depth but the pitching has been different. Manager Yoichi Kubo has planned on starting Yuta Ishida and then possibly Kiyomiya this weekend.
Ishida struck out 11 and allowed three hits in six shutout innings vs. Taiwan. Kiyomiya pitched 2 2/3 shutout innings to finish beating Curacao .
Takuto Miyashita is a possibility, Kubo said, but he has not pitched here.
Kubo also wasn't concerned with Japan having to play an elimination game today in this modified double elimination format after the 3-0 start.
"This is a different tournament and they need to play their best each game," said Kubo through an interpreter. "We don't think about the next game, just this one."
Panama arrives today after overcoming manager Luis Gonzalez' two-game suspension for not fulfilling mandatory play requirements at the Latin American regional. They started 2-0 without him, defeating Lugazi, Uganda, 9-3 and then Vancouver, B.C., 8-3.
Gonzalez returned for Wednesday's loss to Japan and a 2-1 victory over Nuevo Laredo, Mexico on Thursday.
Edisson Gonzalez, who earned the complete-game victory over Mexico and has been perhaps the best pitcher in the International field, is ineligible. He is 2-0 with a 1.20 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 10 innings vs. Canada and Mexico.
That leaves Panama with James Gonzalez, Luis' nephew, as the planned starter today. James Gonzalez will be eligible after throwing 40 pitches in relief Wednesday vs. Japan. He allowed one run there, and pitched two scoreless innings earlier vs. Uganda.
Other pitchers Panama has used are Daniel Cruz, who threw two innings vs. Canada, Julio Goff, who's thrown 4 2/3 innings total vs. Uganda and Japan, and Luis Veliz, who pitched an inning of relief vs. Uganda.
James Gonzalez has also been Panama's top offensive threat, with a .571 average, three home runs, and eight RBIs in 14 plate appearances. Carlos Flavio has the only other home run and Jean Sanchez and Edwin Nieto are hitting over .400 for a team hitting a combined .327.
One difference today could be patience at the plate. While Kubo wasn't pleased with Japan's strikeout rate in the first two games, his team has drawn more walks than Panama this week, 10-5.
"We'll motivate this team the best we can," said Gonzalez through an interpreter. "Beating Japan will be a tough game."