Dice-K, Japan handle Cuba

By Kirk Kenney

SAN DIEGO—Hundreds of Japan fans banged thundersticks together in Sunday afternoon’s World Baseball Classic game against Cuba, creating a concussive effect that made the crowd seem much larger than the 20,179 actually in attendance at Petco Park.

A few Cuba fans countered with cowbells.

Thundersticks outnumbered cowbells about 100 to 1, so Cuba definitely could have used more cowbell.

And a lot less Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Matsuzaka allowed five hits, struck out eight and didn’t walk a batter over six shutout innings in Japan’s 6-0 win over Cuba in the second round of the WBC.

Japan plays the winner of tonight’s Mexico-Korea game on Tuesday night, with the winner there guaranteed a spot in the semifinals at Dodger Stadium.

“Yesterday, within myself, I was thinking about Cuba,” Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said through a translator. “Then I was thinking of simulations. And better yet, today was better than that.”

In other words, the result was even better than Hara could have imagined.

Cuba manager Higinio Velez, also speaking through a translator, had a far diferent perspective: “I think this is a game that was not good enough for the wonderful rivals that confronted each other.”

This was a rematch of the 2006 WBC finals, a 10-6 Japan victory in which Matsuzaka was the winning pitcher. He was the MVP in the inaugural event after going 3-0, including limiting Cuba to one run over four innings in the final.

The Red Sox righthander was even better today against a lineup that led the WBC in Round 1 with a .394 batting average.

“I knew Cuba was a good team, but particularly there was nothing I was too woried about,” said Matsuzaka through a translator. “I thought I was trying to do the good pitching, and that’s what I was concentrating on most of all.”

Matsuzaka retired the side in order in four of six innings. When Cuba did get something going, Matsuzaka quickly restored order. In the first, Cuba hit back-to-back singles with one out, but Matsuzaka worked out of the inning with two fly balls. In the third, he sandwiched two singles between three strikeouts—all looking. He froze Michael Enriquez on a 91 mph fastball for the second out and got Yosvani Peraza looking at a 76 mph changeup to end the inning.

In the fifth, a leadoff single by Ariel Pestano was erased by a double play. In a roundabout response to another question afterward, Matsuzaka said: “While I was warming up, did I look so fierce? I thought I had a smile on my face, did I not? But I thought all the team members were relaxed.”

Cuba started Albertin Aroldis Chapman, a lanky, 21-year-old lefthander who one scout here said is among the top three pitchers in the world not affiliated with a major league team. The other two also happen to be in town: Korea lefthander Hyunjin Ryu (who starts tonight against Mexico) and San Diego State righthander Stephen Strasburg.

Chapman shares another distinction with Strasburg—both have thrown pitches clocked at 102 mph. Strasburg did it three weeks ago in a game against Nevada. Chapman reportedly hit 102 in December against Las Tunas, breaking the record for the fastest pitch in Cuban history.

Cuba assistant coach Pedro Perez may have broken the country’s record for the fastest hook in history for a scoreless game. He pulled Chapman in the top of the third inning when Japan loaded the bases with one out.

Although he registered just one strikeout, Chapman had been fairly impressive to that point. His fastball ran into the high 90s—and a pitch just under the chin of Norichika Aoki in the first inning touched 100 mph. Chapman walked the first two hitters he faced in the second inning, but he picked each of them off first base.

Chapman was charged with three runs in the third inning, although all the runs scored after he was already in the dugout—on a wild pitch from reliever Norberto Gonzalez, a single and a sacrifice fly.

“He’s 21 years old,” said Velez, perhaps giving away Chapman’s age, which is not listed on the official Cuban roster. “Perhaps he felt the pressure and was not at his best game. . . . He has a great future.”

Chapman was not made available to the media after the game.

Japan, which added single runs in the fourth, fifth and ninth innings, just pecked away at the seven pitchers used by Cuba.

Of Japan’s 12 hits in the game, 11 were singles. The other hit was a fourth-inning double by Kenji Johjima that Cuba right fielder Alfredo Despaigne lost in the sun.  A ballboy ran sunglasses out to Despaigne after the play, to thunderstick applause.

And a couple of cowbells.

Kirk Kenney is a sportswriter based in San Diego.