Shutout Clinches Japan’s Semis Spot

By Kirk Kenney

SAN DIEGO—Cuba has left the building—and the World Baseball Classic.

One, apparently, just moments after the other.

Japan continued its recent mastery of Cuba with a 5-0 victory before 9,774 on a foggy Wednesday night at Petco Park, sending the defending WBC champions on to the semifinals. In doing so, the Japanese sent the Cuban players—and most of their coaches—home from an international competition earlier than any of them can remember.

According to WBC officials, it is the first time since 1951 that Cuba did not reach the finals in one of the four major international events (the Olympics, WBC, International Cup and World Cup). That means this is the worst finish in 58 years for the Cubans, who had never finished lower than third at a major international competition in that span. Cuba went 4-2 (both losses here to Japan) in the WBC, tying for fifth with Puerto Rico.

How did it happen? That explanation is decidedly one-sided. Four seats on the podium remained empty when it came time for Cuba’s postgame press conference late Wednesday night. Instead of a question and answer session, a statement attributed to Cuba manager Higinio Velez was read: “Sorry for not being able to make it here tonight for this press conference. But I would like to thank everyone for their kindness towards the Cuban team.

“I would like to congratulate the Japanese team for their great victory tonight. They were much better than us, and that’s why they deserved the victory. They do deserve to go on to the finals. So the only thing left for us to do is to continue to fight for our great game, baseball. Thank you very much. All the best to all four teams in Los Angeles.”

Japan defeated Cuba 10-6 three years ago here to win the inaugural WBC championship. Now the Japanese have an opportunity to defend the title. Japan will play South Korea, which beat the Japanese 4-1 on Tuesday night, for the top seed in Thursday night’s final game of Round 2. The pool winner will face Team USA in the semifinals this weekend at Dodger Stadium. The runner-up will face Venezuela.

“Today’s game for Japan, it was a very special game,” Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said through an interpreter. “The reason for that was because we had to win . . . and that was the main purpose for us. All the team members, we were aware of this. And I, as a manager, was all tensed up . . . All the players all felt great pressure, however, they all played a very good game.”

Japan starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma won 21 of his 27 starts last year in the Japan Leagues. The 28-year-old righthander won the Sawamura Award, which is Japanese for Cy Young. Iwakuma’s fastball topped out at about 93 mph, but both his two-seamer and four-seamer had tremendous late movement. He changed speeds well and mixed four pitches effectively.

Cuba led all WBC teams in batting and slugging, but you would have never known it from their two shutout losses to Japan.

“Well, today, of course, I had pressure,” said Iwakuma through an interpreter. “If we had lost today, then that was the end of it. My role was I wanted to do my best, and then all of us played a good game.”

With the disappointment the Cubans have waiting for them back home, one might assume they would have wanted to drag this game out. But Iwakuma threw just 69 pitches—only one inning did he throw more than 12—over six innings. Iwakuma allowed five hits—one in each inning but the third—but the Cubans never could get the key hit that would get them back in the game. Then Japan reliever Toshiya Sugiuchi came in and Cuba couldn’t even get a baserunner, let alone a hit. Sugiuchi struck out four and did not allow a runner over the final three innings.

Cuba’s Yunieski Maya made his first start after two relief appearances earlier in the WBC. The 28-year-old righthander threw a fastball clocked in the 91-93 mph range that he couldn’t put past the Japanese but used effectively enough. Japan put runners at second and third with one out in the fourth on a single by Norichika Aoki (went 4-for-5 with 2 RBI) and a double by Atsunori Inaba. It appeared Maya would get out of the predicament when Michihiro Ogasawara hit a deep fly to center with two outs. Cuba center fielder Yoennis Cespedes ran down the bal, but it went in and out of his glove for an error and rolled to the wall, allowing both runs to score.

Did Cespedes lose the ball, if even for a moment, in the fog? He wasn’t around to say.

Reliever Yulieski Gonzalez got Cuba out of the inning, but the damage was done. Cuba catcher Ariel Pestano gave Gonzalez an earful as they came off the field at the end of the fourth inning. What Pestano said was open to interpretation and, the way things have gone with interpreters here this week, was probably better left unsaid. Pestano was still talking when the players gathered around an assistant coach for a few words in front of the Cuba dugout, as well as when he passed by Cuba manager Higinio Velez in the dugout. No one, it seemed, wanted to hear it.

Kirk Kenney is a sportswriter based in San Diego