BOSTON (AP)-Last season, a little bit of Japan came to Boston when Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima bolstered the Red Sox' pitching staff.
This year the route will be reversed, but manager Terry Francona hopes the destination is the same - a World Series championship.
The Red Sox open the 2008 regular season with two games in Tokyo against the Oakland Athletics, a journey that brings jet lag to the players and returns major league baseball - and Dice-K and Okajima - to their baseball-loving nation.
It also throws a curve into spring training.
Pitchers must get ready sooner for the games with Oakland on March 25 and 26 at the Tokyo Dome that follow two exhibition games there against the Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants. Hitters must get their timing down earlier.
til Feb. 22, although pitchers and catchers report on Thursday.
``If they were all exhibition games, I'd be really excited because I've never been there and I love doing stuff like that,'' Francona said in an interview with The Associated Press, ``but because the games count, two of them, that's our concern.''
But ``when it was decided that baseball really wanted us to go, I understand. So now it's our responsibility to be good representatives and win.''
At least the players won't have to get to know each other.
The biggest addition to the team that swept Colorado in the World Series is first baseman Sean Casey, and he's only a backup to Kevin Youkilis.
Why change a team that spent the last 150 games of 2007 in first place?
No reason, especially with youngsters like rookie of the year Dustin Pedroia at second base, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and starting pitchers Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.
``We feel that we can improve by letting our young players play,'' general manager Theo Epstein said. ``We don't have desperate holes we need to go out and fill at any cost and we can pick and choose what makes sense for us.''
It didn't make enough sense to add two-time Cy Young award winner Johan Santana to a strong rotation led by 2007 Cy Young runner-up Josh Beckett, not if Epstein had to part with much lower-paid contributors like Lester or Ellsbury.
ork Mets. Though Curt Schilling's shoulder injury is a major concern, Boston still has Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, Lester and Buchholz to fill out the rotation.
Dice-K, one of baseball's biggest stories last year, had to adjust to a new country, culture and league and still was a respectable 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA and the sixth most strikeouts in the AL.
``I can't imagine doing what he did,'' Francona said.
Okajima was more of a puzzle. After 12 seasons in Japan, the manager wasn't sure what to do with him.
``With two weeks left in spring training, I remember saying to Theo one day, `How are we going to use this guy?' I couldn't see the role,'' Francona said. ``He said, `A couple of weeks into the season you're going to be wanting to pitch this guy.' Without him, we don't get where we want to go.''
That proved prophetic when the lefty became an outstanding setup man for star closer Jonathan Papelbon. In his first season facing batters he'd never seen, Okajima was 3-2 with a 2.22 ERA.
Ellsbury should get his first extended exposure to AL pitchers. He played just seven games for Boston last season before being recalled and playing 26 in September, most of them as a starter. Then he led the Red Sox in the World Series with a .438 batting average.
His speed and Pedroia's bat handling ability could make them effective table-setters for sluggers David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.
tent most of the season but hit a grand slam against Cleveland in Game 6 of the ALCS. Mike Lowell was MVP of the World Series. Jason Varitek, going into the last year of his contract, is one of the best catchers at handling pitchers.
Youkilis had the second best on-base percentage among Boston's regulars. Julio Lugo had some tough times at the plate but was a better than average fielder at shortstop.
Francona hopes Drew and Lugo will improve in their second season with the Red Sox, just as Beckett did last year when he went 20-7 with a 3.27 ERA.
``We have basically the same names,'' Francona said, ``but I think with the addition of Ellsbury, Lester and Buchholz, that's three additions to our team that we really didn't have for the whole year last year, so it's not the same team.''
If Ellsbury wins the center field job, the Red Sox would have a strong backup in Coco Crisp, unless he's traded. Casey, a three-time All-Star with a .301 career average, is an upgrade over Eric Hinske as the top lefty hitter off the bench.
Now, like his new manager and teammates, he must prepare for a season that starts on the East Coast - of Asia.
``You've just got to get your rest,'' Casey said. ``Guys should embrace the fact that we're getting the opportunity of a lifetime to go to Japan.''
The regular season will begin there for the third time. The Mets and Chicago Cubs did it in 2000 and the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays followed in 2004. Lugo was on the Tampa Bay team that beat Mike Mussina 8-3 in the opener that year.
That trip might have contributed to the Yankees' slow start - 8-11 with five losses in six games to Boston - but they finished the season with 101 wins. Then they led the Red Sox 3-0 in the ALCS but lost the next four games and Boston went on to end its 86-year championship drought.
If the Red Sox struggle after the trip to Japan, ``I would never want to use that as an excuse,'' Francona said.
They'll have time to readjust with three exhibition games at the Los Angeles Dodgers before the next two regular-season games at Oakland.
``Major League Baseball really has tried to do a lot to ease the travel,'' Francona said. ``They try very hard to not have it be painful again.''
A couple of wins could make the jet lag worthwhile.
``That's our goal,'' Francona said, ``so it won't be a vacation.''

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