Ichiro comes up big for Japan in win over Cuba
SAN DIEGO -- Forget beisbol. This was yakyu at its best, and the inaugural World Baseball Classic belongs to Japan.
Ichiro Suzuki and his less-famous countrymen beat Cuba 10-6 in the championship game Monday night, ripping a page out of Cuba's scorebook by winning a major international tournament.
On a festive night when Cuban and Japanese fans danced to "Surf City" and Sadaharu Oh escorted Hank Aaron -- there's 1,623 homer runs between them -- onto the field for the ceremonial first pitch, Japan won the 16-nation tournament that showed baseball in March can matter.
The Classic's slogan is "Baseball Spoken Here." In this case, it's yakyu, which in Japanese means "field ball."
Suzuki doubled, singled and drove in a run. He also scored three times, including in a four-run first inning that proved Cuba's pitchers are vulnerable, after all.
Cuba's fans perked up when their team, wearing its lucky red uniforms, pulled to 6-5 on a two-run homer by Frederich Cepeda with one out in the eighth. Akinori Otsuka, the former San Diego Padres reliever now with Texas, came on and retired the side.
Suzuki singled in the ninth to score Munenori Kawasaki on a close play at the plate and make it 7-5. Kawasaki slid, turned and stuck his right hand just inside of catcher Ariel Pestano's left foot to -- perhaps -- touch the plate. Japan broke it open on a two-run single by pinch-hitter Kosuke Fukudome and a sacrifice fly by Michihiro Ogasawara.
Otsuka allowed a run in the ninth before closing it out for a save.
With the United States failing to make it out of the second round and the Dominican Republic losing to Cuba in the semifinals, Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners star, was the only major leaguer in the starting lineups. Otsuka is the only other big leaguer on Japan's roster.
The Cubans consider themselves amateurs, although Miguel Tejada and Albert Pujols, who played for the Dominican Republic, said leading up to the semis that most of the Cubans could be in the majors.
But for as good as the Cubans are -- they had won 22 of 24 games in international competition and have dominated the globe for decades -- they cracked at the worst possible time.
Japan took a 4-0 lead in the top of the first while hitting the ball out of the infield just once.
Cuba starter Ormari Romero was on a short leash to begin with, but was yanked after throwing 23 pitches. He retired leadoff hitter Kawasaki, then loaded the bases on infield singles by Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Nobuhiko Matsunaka, and a walk to Suzuki.
Vicyhoandry Odelin came on and hit Hitoshi Tamura on the left elbow with a pitch to force in the second run, walked Ogasawara with two outs to bring in another, before Toshiaki Imae hit a sharp, two-run single up the middle to make it 4-0.
Eduardo Paret hit a leadoff homer for the Cubans in the first, but they didn't score again until the sixth, when they made it 6-3. One of Cuba's two runs that inning was unearned due to an error by shortstop Kawasaki, who earlier in the game made two brilliant plays. Japan took a 6-1 lead by scoring twice in the fifth on three straight hits -- Suzuki's leadoff double and singles by Matsunaka and Tamura.
At first, communist Cuba was denied a permit to participate in the tournament due to decades of political animosity with the U.S. government. And Japan kept a stiff upper lip after it appeared to be deprived of the go-ahead run in a 4-3 loss to the United Sates on March 12 in the opener of Round 2.
The tournament was considered a success, coming not long after baseball was booted from the Olympics effective in 2012.
Petco Park, the San Diego Padres' downtown ballpark, hasn't seen such a festive night since it opened in 2004.
Fans from both countries waved flags, blew horns and banged cowbells.
The San Diego Symphony Orchestra played the national anthems of Japan, Cuba and the United States. The Japanese players bowed after their anthem was played.
Oh, the Japanese hero who hit 868 homers and now manages the national team, escorted Aaron to the third-base line. Aaron, whose 755 homers are the most in major league history, went to the mound by himself to throw the ceremonial first pitch to Pestano, who had Aaron autograph the ball.
After streamers were shot from the upper deck, it was time for beisbol ... and yakyu.