Stage set: Classic ready for Hollywood
Japan knocks out Cuba; Venezuela downs USA to win pool
The Samurai will fight another day, their title defense still very much alive.
Team Japan, the reigning World Baseball Classic champion, will be in Los Angeles to defend its crown this weekend following a convincing victory Wednesday night over international baseball's most storied squad.Japan, known back home as the Samurai, held off Cuba to claim the final semifinal berth in the 2009 Classic, taking a 5-0 win at PETCO Park that put to an end an amazing run of prowess for Cuba in international play while extending Japan's quest for a second title in as many editions of this tournament. "Today, whatever it may take, we wanted to advance to Los Angeles," Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said. "And we all had very high hopes about that, and we all, on behalf of Team Japan, had to do our share, and we were able to come up with the result." With the loss, Cuba bowed out of this competition without finishing at least third for the first time ever in international play. Cuba had reached the finals in every major international tournament since 1952, and had finished second to Japan in the 2006 Classic. In the present day, Japan proved worthy of joining rival Korea, the U.S. and Venezuela in a three-day festival of world baseball to be held at Dodger Stadium, starting Saturday. The second round winds down with one more game -- the fourth of this tournament, with a fifth still a possibility -- between the Asian rivals, Japan and Korea, to determine the seeding for the semis. In the first semifinal at 9 p.m. ET Saturday, Venezuela will take on the runner-up from Pool 1, the loser of Thursday's Japan-Korea game. Then Team USA will make its Classic semifinal debut against the Pool 1 winner at 8 p.m. ET Sunday. The victors of those two games will meet for the World Baseball Classic title at 9 p.m. Monday at Dodger Stadium. And after Wednesday's victory, Team Japan goes to Los Angeles with a new boost of confidence, regardless of what happens Thursday against Korea. Pitching was the star for Japan on Wednesday, and two stars did it all. It began with six innings of five-hit pitching by right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, and ended with three innings of stellar relief by left-hander Toshiya Sugiuchi. Somewhere in there, Ichiro tripled and snared the final out in right field. That it came against Cuba, a longtime nemesis with its incredible history in international play, was not lost on Hara. "On behalf of Japan it, meant a lot," Hara said. "It was a big deal for us, and it will be left in the history. And also regarding baseball, with respect to the Cuban team, I have a great respect for the Cuban team, and we were able to beat them. Team Japan and the baseball world of Japan, it meant a great deal." According to the information provided by World Baseball Classic organizers, this marks the lowest finish ever in one of the four major international competitions -- World Cup, Intercontinental Cup, the Olympics and World Baseball Classic -- for Cuba, and the lowest since a third-place finish in the 1951 World Cup. Cuba had streaked to 38 international titles in 49 tournaments since 1939.
Team Cuba released a statement from manager after the game, reading in part: "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."Earlier in the day, the teams from Venezuela and the U.S. put on a relatively sloppy display on a wet night in Miami, with the Venezuelans holding on for a 10-6 victory to secure the top seed out of Pool 2. "Today the guys got turned loose again," Venezuela manager Luis Sojo said. "There were very significant times at bat, and we were able to score six runs in one inning, then we scored three in another inning. ... This team is ready. This team could explode offensively at any time, and this was one of those days."
For Team USA, the loss was actually its third of the tournament, but the players just couldn't compare taking the field Wednesday for a seeding game to the 6-5 masterpiece of a win the night before that clinched their spot in the semis."We're fine," said utility player Mark DeRosa, who had three hits. "After last night, I mean, anything was going to be a letdown. That was one of the great moments in a lot of guys' careers, and it was a special moment rushing out on the field with all your teammates and advancing." More special moments are to come this weekend in Los Angeles.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.