By Alan Schwarz
March 20, 2006
SAN DIEGO–One day before Japan was to face Cuba in the title game of the inaugural World Baseball Classic, Ichiro Suzuki explained that he wanted to bring some emotion to his culturally stoic Japanese teammates.
He brought more than that. He delivered a championship.
Suzuki scored three runs and drove in the back-breaker in the top of the ninth inning as Japan defeated Cuba 10-6 in front of 42,696 at Petco Park. In the clubhouse afterward, teammates soaked Suzuki–a nine-year legend in the Japanese majors before five outstanding seasons in the United States–in champagne as he yelled in Japanese, “You have to respect the old guy!”
“This is probably the biggest moment of my baseball career,” Suzuki, who batted .364 and scored seven runs in eight WBC games, said through a translator. “I was always thinking we needed a good event to decide the world’s best. This whole event was a meaningful one for that purpose.”
It was the second major world championship for Japan, which won the 1984 Olympic gold medal when baseball was a demonstration sport. Japan avenged its loss to Cuba in the 1996 Olympic final; following the victory, elated Japanese players performed the traditional ritual of tossing their manager, Sadaharu Oh, in the air three times.
“I thought I would never get the chance to manage a team like this,” Oh, the manager of the Japanese league’s Fukuoka Daiei Hawks and baseball’s all-time home run leader, said through a translator. “It’s a great moment for all the fans back in Japan and the fans here.”
Japanese starter Daisuke Matsuzaka, who gained the victory by giving up only one run in four innings while striking out five, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. He finished 3-0, 1.38 in three WBC starts–getting three of Japan’s five total WBC wins–by also defeating Chinese Taipei and Mexico in earlier rounds.
“It was my first experience to pitch in a game with the world championship on the line,” said Matsuzaka, who is interested in jumping to the major leagues as early as next season. “I was going to feel a lot of pressure as this is something you can not purchase. But I did not feel much of it once I got up on the mound.”
Only four days ago, Japan had reason to think its tournament might be over. But the United States and Roger Clemens were upset by Mexico on Thursday night, allowing Japan to live to meet undefeated Korea in the semifinals. The Japanese rebounded from two earlier losses to Korea, rolling to a 6-0 win to set up Monday’s final against Cuba.
Japan jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead in the top of the first despite hitting only one ball out of the infield. Cuban starter Ormani Romero retired the first hitter but watched as Tsuyoshi Nishioka reached on an infield single, Suzuki walked, and Nobuhiko Matsunaka reached on another infield single to load the bases. Romero was then removed by Cuban manager Higinio Velez–Cuban baseball typically gives pitchers short leashes–in favor of Vicyohandri Odelin, who immediately hit Hitoshi Tamura with a pitch to score the game’s first run.
After a strikeout Romero then walked in a run, before third baseman Toshiaki Imae lined a slider sharply up the middle to make the score 4-0. Velez then removed Odelin for yet another reliever before the inning finally ended.
“I knew it would be a different scenario if we scored more than two runs,” Imae said.
Those extra two runs did become vital. Cuba immediately rebounded with a leadoff home run by Eduardo Paret, and later in the game began to climb back from a 6-1 deficit when the previously outstanding Japanese defense began to falter.
With Matsuzaka out of the game after four fine innings, shortstop Munenori Kawasaki bobbled a one-out ground ball by Yulieski Gourriel for an error. Gourriel came around to score on a Frederich Cepeda double, and a single by Osmani Urrutia made the score 6-3. Matters could have gotten far worse for the Japanese through the seventh thanks to two more bobbles by Kawasaki and a dropped routine fly ball by reliever Shunsuke Watanabe, but two double plays kept Japan’s lead at three.
In the bottom of the eighth Cuba drew even closer when Cepeda lofted a two-run home run to left field that made the score 6-5. But reliever Akinori Otsuka–who had called Petco Park home as a member of the San Diego Padres–came in to quell the rally there, and Japan put the game out of reach with four insurance runs in the top of the ninth.
The first scored on Suzuki’s key single. The Seattle Mariners star later scored on a single by Tamura, flopping home in an awkward slide that could have injured his shoulder, but he emerged unhurt. The play exemplified the passion that Suzuki decided to play with in the World Baseball Classic–particularly in the final two games.
“In the game on Saturday night against Korea, we fought our heart out because our backs were against the wall,” Suzuki said. “There was so much excitement with the team. We had lost to Korea twice in this tournament. That really drove us.
“Today we had a different reason to fire ourselves up. We really wanted to win this championship today. I didn’t even think of the upcoming season in 2006. I didn’t even care if I got injured in this game. That’s how much we were driven to win this championship.”