Cuba, Japan clash for Pool A supremacy
Traditional powers have already advanced, but are mindful of future seeding
FUKUOKA, Japan -- Cuba and Japan may have already qualified for the second round of the 2013 World Baseball Classic, but that doesn't take the shine off a matchup many fans have been waiting for since the pools were announced.
Games between the baseball powers are special affairs, and Wednesday's contest at 5 a.m. ET comes with the top spot in Pool A up for grabs. The Pool A winner is awarded the advantage of facing the Pool B runner-up -- the Kingdom of the Netherlands -- when the next round begins on Friday at Tokyo Dome.
That's the goal fueling Cuba, which seeks to put itself in the best possible position to reach the final round at San Francisco's AT&T Park.
"The most important thing is not Japan," Cuban manager Victor Mesa said through a translator after his team's 12-0 win over China on Tuesday. "Japan is second. Most important is who goes to San Francisco. I am hoping we can go to San Francisco. Of course, in order to do that, we have to compete against Japan."
Japan expected to be in this position all along, and it will balance trying to win the group with its preparations for the second round.
"We're going to use guys who have yet to pitch, as we planned," Japan manager Koji Yamamoto said. "We don't know who we are facing in the second round, and while we're aware of that, we're going to play as hard we can."
The two-time defending champions haven't been at their best thus far in the Classic. Japan needed an eighth-inning rally to defeat a gritty Brazilian team on the opening night of the tournament, and it was held in check by China early in its second game.
Cuba also had trouble putting Brazil away, but it flexed its muscle in a win over China that was called in the seventh due to the tournament's mercy rule.
"What can I say about Cuba?" China manager John McLaren said. "Should be a good game between them and Japan. They're a powerful club, always have been. They're a baseball factory, and I wish them the best of luck."
McLaren wasn't the only one interested in the matchup.
"I know [from] playing against Japan, they're a very good ballclub," Brazil manager Barry Larkin said. "Cuba's a very good ballclub. Different styles, certainly, but two very good ballclubs. It will be interesting to see, when they do play each other, how the game comes out."
Japan will send left-hander Kenji Otonari to the mound. Otonari, a member of Nippon Professional Baseball's Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, will be making his Classic debut in his home park.
Mesa and the Cubans will counter with a lefty of their own, Wilber Perez.
"Cuba has more power," McLaren said. "I think that's the biggest difference that I see. I think Japan and Cuba are very aggressive, they hit-and-run, put the game in motion. To me, it's going to come down to pitching, which the game has always been about. It should be a very good game, and I'm looking forward to watching it."
Jason Coskrey is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.