Japan Takes Gold, Cuba Silver in WBC
Cuba’s team was literally an inch from losing in the bottom of the ninth of its opening game in the World Baseball Classic against Panama on March 8, and facing almost certain first round elimination.
Twelve days later it had defied all predictions and was in the finals after defeating three powerhouses packed with US Major League all-stars.
The final game against Japan was played Monday evening before a full stadium in San Diego, California, with fans waving both Cuban and Japanese flags and an entire country of baseball fans gathered at homes and public places to see the ballgame.
Independent of the outcome, 10-6 in favor of Japan, the two teams had already proven that their baseball leagues produce players of the highest caliber, having pushed aside baseball giants like the United States, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Yes, the US has been able to lure many of the world’s best athletes, professionals and artists from other countries, mainly for financial reasons. However, in the case of baseball, Asia and Latin America have just broken the myth of US superiority.
That doesn’t mean that MLB isn’t top caliber, of course it is. But instead, it is a reminder that the rest of the world exists and can compete. If it wasn’t because of money, most of those great foreign born Major Leaguers we saw in the Classic would be playing year round in their home country’s leagues and when called upon for the national team.
WE PLAY FOR THE SPORT OF IT
Less than two months before the tournament began the Bush administration backtracked on its prohibiting Cuba from participating, but there were several sports “experts” who said the island really didn’t want to play because its team couldn’t compete with the big boys.
President Fidel Castro surprised the cynics by saying “Yes of course we accept the challenge… Cuba will play… even though they have stolen many of our good players.”
And play they did, defeating Venezuela and Puerto Rico to get to the semifinals and the intimidating Dominicans to reach the finals.
On Tuesday at 5:00 p.m. virtually all of Havana and a live TV audience will be waiting for the parade that will take their team through the streets of the capital city.
Yes everybody wanted Cuba to win the final game, but nobody feels cheated and most agree that the second place represents one of the greatest feats in the country’s sports history.
On Monday one fan interviewed at the “hot corner,” where baseball is spoken around the clock in Havana’s Central Park, summed up popular sentiment before the game: “We are as professional as anybody. The difference is that they play for money and we play for the sport it.”
THE FIRST AND LAST INNINGS MADE THE DIFFERENCE
It was the first and last inning that gave Japan their victory. After the leadoff hitter was retired on a grounder, the team that led the WBC in batting jumped on Cuba’s starter Omari Romero and reliever Vicyohandri Odelin for four runs. By the time the dust cleared Norberto Gonzalez was on the mound as Cuba’s third pitcher.
In the bottom of the inning shortstop Eduardo Paret excited the Cuban fans with a leadoff homer to left, but hard-throwing Japanese right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka settled down and had little trouble through the fourth, while striking out five.
Leading 4-1, in the fifth inning the Japanese sluggers finally got to Norberto and managed two more runs on three straight hits, one a double by Ichiro Suzuki.
By the sixth Japan had submarine reliever Shunsuke Watanabe on the mound and the Cubans went to work to try and chip away at the lead. An error and three hits brought in two runs but Yoandry Garlobo, the teams WBC hitting sensation, grounded hard into a double play with two on and one out ending the rally.
Southpaw Adiel Palma kept the Japanese bats quiet retiring the first 11 batters he faced between the fifth and the eighth innings giving Cuba a chance to play catch up. In the bottom of the eighth Frederich Cepeda blasted a two-run homer to left and suddenly what looked like a runaway was 6-5.
Japan then brought in its star closer Akinori Otsuka, who got the final eighth inning outs in the wink of an eye on a roller to the mound and a fly to right. Cuba hoped to have one more chance to erase the one run deficit.
However, the top of the ninth proved similar to the top of the first, and Japan took a 10-5 lead, scoring four runs on four hits and two walks against four Cuban pitchers.
In the bottom of the ninth the Cubans showed they weren’t going to give up and with a lead off double by catcher Ariel Pestano and a one-out RBI single by Paret, made it 10-6. But Otsuka dug down into his bag of tricks and ended the game by striking out Michel Enriquez and Yulieski Gourriel. In all, the Cubans fanned nine times against the tough Japanese pitching.
So now the curtain has fallen on the World Baseball Classic, a tournament that provided lots of excitement and just plain good baseball. The next edition is tentatively set for 2009, but many, including Cuba, hope it will come sooner.