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Cuban streak of 40 consecutive finals ends

by Jason Coskrey

SAN DIEGO — For the first time in half a century, a major international baseball title will be decided without Cuba.

The Cubans were eliminated in the second round of the World Baseball Classic after falling to Japan on Wednesday. The loss snapped Cuba’s streak of 40 consecutive trips to the finals of international competitions.

Cuban manager Higinio Velez did not attend the postgame press conference and did not discuss the significance of the loss in the prepared statement that was read to the media.

“I would like to congratulate the Japanese team for their great victory tonight,” Velez said in the statement. “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 is to continue to fight for our great game of baseball.”

The last time the Cubans failed to reach the finals of the IBAF World Cup, International Cup, Olympic Games or WBC was in 1951, when they finished third in the IBAF World Cup in Mexico.

Cuba has been consistently dominant in international baseball, winning Olympic gold in 1992, ’96 and 2004. The Cubans have also won 25 gold medals in the IBAF World Cup and finished first in the International Cup 10 times.

Cuba was the runnerup in the inaugural WBC in 2006 and most recently won silver at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

The historical significance of the victory was not lost on winning manager Tatsunori Hara.

“On behalf of Japan, it means a lot,” Hara said. “It was a big deal and it will go down in history. I have great respect for the Cuban team, and we were able to beat them. It means a great deal to Team Japan and baseball in Japan.”

Japan single-handedly eliminated the Cubans by winning both meetings in the second round, Cuba’s only losses of the WBC. The Cubans didn’t manage a single run against Japan and were outscored 11-0 in the two games.

Starting pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who beat Cuba in the 2006 WBC final, threw six shutout innings in the first game and Japan pounced on Cuban starter Aroldis Chapman early in a three-run third. Japan went on to win 6-0.

Hisashi Iwakuma toed the rubber for Japan in the second meeting and also threw six shutout innings. A two-run error and Norichika Aoki’s four-hit, two-RBI night helped Japan earn the win and eliminate the Cubans.

“I am so happy about the victory,” Iwakuma said after the game. “Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched magnificently and I was encouraged. So I was able to throw a good game. We, as Team Japan, were able to play a good game and that resulted in a victory. I am very happy about that.”

There likely weren’t many happy feelings in Cuba afterward, as the Cubans were left to ponder their first finish outside the top three in international competition.