Fully hitting its offensive stride, Cuba used a powerful hitting attack to defeat Japan 6-3 in the Fukuoka Dome. Both sides had already qualified for the second round of the World Baseball Classic, but Cuba takes the No. 1 seed to Tokyo, befitting of its top ranking in the International Baseball Federation charts.
Both teams received good starting pitching and the crowd in the Dome spent all but a few pitches cheering loudly in unison for Japan and banging ‘Thunder Sticks’ together to create a riotous and deafening atmosphere. Despite playing on home turf, third-rated Japan batted first because of tournament rules and almost took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first frame.
With two outs, Hirokazu Ibata reached on a bouncer up-the-middle. The MVP of the Japan’s Central League, Shinnosuke Abe, stepped to the plate against Wilbur Pérez and blasted a 1-1 pitch to deep right centre. Cuba’s centerfielder, Guillermo Heredia, raced into the alley and caught the ball at the fence.
Kenji Otonari was perfect through the first two frames, and Japan threatened again in the second, putting two runners on base with one out, but could not produce a run.
After a third inning in which he put a runner in scoring position and gave up another warning track out to Abe, Cuban manager Víctor Mesa pulled Pérez to protect the perilous 1-0 lead. The left-hander gave up three hits and a walk, sending three down swinging.
Yasmany Tomás broke Otonari’s six batter hitless streak in a dramatic way. Leading off the first, Tomás took a 1-1 pitch and crushed it about 20 rows into the left centre field bleachers. The blow was the longest of the tournament, beating even teammate José Dariel Abreu’s prodigious home run a day before. The blast travelled around 440 feet by unofficial estimation.
Otonari would escape the inning without allowing another run, but his night was over after three frames. He struck out two and walked none, giving up one other hit.
Japan continued to press for a run against reliever Yander Guevara. With two outs, Sho Nakata hit a grounder to Bárbaro Arruebarruena, who had otherwise showed impressive defensive chops. The Cuban shortstop booted the ball, giving the Samurai a chance in the fourth. Atsunori Ibata, at 40 one of the oldest players in the WBC, stroked a single between first and second, but Guevara struck out Nobuhiro Matsuda to end the inning. Matsuda had been three for his last eight.
Cuba added a run against reliever Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka, normally the ace of Japan’s staff, had struggled against Brazil in Game One. Koji Yamamoto, Japan’s manager, inserted the right-hander for a tune-up before the second round.
Tanaka struggled against Brazil using the more slippery American baseball, which is different than the ball used in Japan. He looked no more comfortable to start the fourth. José Fernández greeted him with a single and scored on a booming double by Frederich Cepeda. After catching Abreu looking, Alfredo Despaigne hit a single to put two runners on base.
Tanaka suddenly found his groove, striking out Tomás and Eriel Sánchez to end the frame. Cuba had the 2-0 lead, but Japan was far from out of it, having put six runners on base during the first four innings.
Guevara allowed a walk, but Japan once again failed to capitalise and Tanaka took the hill for the bottom of the fifth. The righty continued where he left off in the fourth, mixing a fastball that was hitting the mid-90s/high-140s with a splitter and a nasty breaking pitch to strike out the side.
Japan could not capitalise on Tanaka’s performance in the sixth despite having runners on first and third with one out. Reliever Norberto González entered with two outs and got Inaba on a double play, erasing Nakata, who reached in all four plate appearances.
After Hirokazu Sawamura relieved to start the frame, Cuba took back the momentum and increased their lead. A red-hot Fernández ripped a double to deep right centre field and Abreu drove in Cuba’s third run two batters later. The slugger stole second base but Sawamura marooned him on second.
González continued to induce ground balls in the seventh, retiring Japan 1-2-3. Masahiko Morifuku also threw a scoreless frame, and the score was still 3-0 entering the eighth.
Cuba’s hurler stayed on the hill for another frame with similar results, needing only 14 pitches to get outs from all three batters. The red-and-blue would get González an additional cushion in the bottom of the inning against new pitcher Takeru Imamura.
With one out, Cepeda walked and Abreu hit a long single down the left field line. Despaigne made Imamura pay, ripping a three-run homer to left centre that travelled almost as far as Tomás’. Two strikeouts by Imamura would get Japan out of the eighth, but the lead had grown to 6-0.
González remained on the mound to start the ninth, and finished his run of nine batters retired in-a-row with a long flyout on the warning track in centre field. Mesa called in Raicel Iglesías for some extra work, but the righty walked Nakata and pinch hitter Katsuya Kakunaka on full counts. Despite six-run margin, Cuba’s manager yanked his pitcher.
Darién Núñez became the sixth pitcher to take the hill for the red-and-blue. The southpaw fared no better than Iglesías, walking pinch hitter Yuichi Honda on five tosses. Mesa, much to the disbelief of those watching, pulled the left-hander and brought in Vladimir García.
García went to a full count on Hisayoshi Chōno as Mesa stood gesticulating in the dugout, continuing to bellow in frustration as he had all inning. Desperate to throw a strike, García gave Chōno something to hit, and Japan’s leadoff hitter bounced a ball over the pitcher’s mound that Arruebarruena made an acrobatic dive to snare.
Chōno was safe by the time the shortstop could look for an out, and Nakata crossed the plate with the Samurai’s first run. Takashi Toritani then plated a second run on sacrifice fly, and Kakunaka made it 2-0.
With two outs and García throwing strikes, Mesa continued to show his passionate nature, marching to the mound to confer with his hurler, telling Sánchez, the catcher, to remain behind the plate as he conferred with García.
The talk did not appear to do any good, as Ibata stroked a line drive into the first base hole to score Honda. With the chanting crowd reaching a fever pitch, Japan sensed there might be more, but García struck out Ryoji Aikawa to end the game.
It was the first time since the 2008 Olympics that Cuba had beaten a full strength Japan. Cuba scored six runs on 10 hits, and an extra-base hit was involved on every score. Fernández improved his WBC average to .625 with two more hits, and Abreu and Despaigne joined him with a brace. Six different hitters scored for the red-and-blue, which hit .375 with runners in scoring position.
Ibata and Nakata each had two of Japan’s seven hits. The Samurai left 10 runners on base and were only 2-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
Otonari took the loss despite a strong effort, while the 36-year old Pérez earned his first-ever WBC victory. Guevara and González picked up holds. The team struck out eight to Japan’s 10.
Both teams advance to Tokyo, where Cuba will take on the Netherlands on Mar. 8 at 3 a.m. GMT. Japan will face Asian rivals Chinese Taipei at 10 a.m. GMT on Mar. 9. The WBC changes to double elimination from the second round onward, with the top two teams from each second round bracket advancing to the semifinals.
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