3/3/2013 2:50 P.M. ET
Underdog China eager for a test against Cuba
By Jason Coskrey / Special to MLB.com
FUKUOKA, Japan -- Looking for a way to stun the baseball world and beat Cuba should seem like a monumental task for China manager John McLaren and his team. But compared to their true ambition, Monday's game -- airing live on MLB Network at 4:30 p.m. local time (2:30 a.m. ET) -- is just the first step to something far more substantial.
The Chinese are competing in the World Baseball Classic for the third time, and their goal is to help raise the popularity of baseball back home and lay the seeds for future success in the sport.
"We haven't been playing baseball as long as Japan and Korea," McLaren said on Sunday. "We're going to get better. We're working at it. They're starting to play baseball on a regular basis in China. We just want the fans and the young kids in China to see us playing on TV -- give them inspiration to play the game."
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The Chinese understand there will be plenty of bumps along the way, and Monday's showdown with a powerful Cuban team should be a sizable one.
"We're taking it one game at a time," McLaren said. "We know Cuba's an outstanding baseball club. They have a lot of great players. We're looking forward to competing with them."
China opened its run in the 2013 Classic with a 5-2 loss to Japan on Sunday. Starter Xia Luo kept the Japanese off balance, but he got no help from his offense and the bullpen wasn't able to compete with the wave of quality hitters Japan sent to the plate.
Still, McLaren was seeing things on the bright side afterward.
"Baseball's new in China, and this was just another step forward," McLaren said. "I thought the guys played really hard, and we didn't hit much until there at the end, but we're just trying to get better every day. I was proud of the kids."
China will have another opportunity to square off against baseball royalty on Monday, when Xin Li will get the start against mighty Cuba.
Cuban manager Victor Mesa will send Danny Betancourt to the mound with one eye on a looming showdown against Japan that may decide the Pool A winner.
Cuba put itself in the hunt to win Pool A by surviving a strong challenge from Brazil in a 5-2 win on Sunday.
Ismel Jimenez was the star for the Cubans in the victory, throwing 4 2/3 scoreless innings and striking out six.
Jimenez's next start could come in the second round at Tokyo Dome, possibly in the opener against the Pool B winner or runner-up, depending on whether Cuba finishes first or second in Pool A.
"Whenever I have the chance to pitch again, I want to record as many outs as I can," Jimenez said through a translator. "That's my concern -- get outs and get a win."
The main concern for China at the moment is to keep working hard and laying the foundation for success down the road.
"We have a long way to go," McLaren said. "We strike out a lot, and we don't work the count. But like I said, give us time. Give us time."
Jason Coskrey is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.