SAN DIEGO – In baseball, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
Facing elimination at the World Baseball Classic, Samurai Japan found a way to be both.
Japan scored a pair of runs on an error and starter Hisashi Iwakuma took care of the rest as Japan claimed the fourth and final spot in the WBC semifinals with a 5-0 win over Cuba on Wednesday night at PETCO Park.
“Today’s game was a very special game for Japan,” manager Tatsunori Hara said. “The reason was that we had to win and that gave the game great meaning to us.
“When the game started, all the the players felt great pressure,” Hara said. “But all the players played a good game. Especially our starting pitcher, Iwakuma. For six innings, he was in control and was magnificent. During the course of this game I thought that was the best thing.”
Japan joins South Korea, Venezuela and the United States in the next round, which will be played in Los Angeles.
“The biggest hurdle coming to San Diego was we had to win twice and then move to Los Angeles,” Hara said. “For now the hurdle is clear and we are advancing. So far, our team has been doing well in that sense.”
For Cuba, the loss broke a streak of 40 consecutive trips to the finals of major international competitions for the historically strong team.
Japan put runners on second and third with one out in the fifth to set up a prime scoring opportunity. The defending champions’ hopes seemed to be dashed as Shuichi Murata followed with a flyout and Michihiro Ogasawara seemingly did the same.
Luck smiled on Hara’s team, however, as the ball Ogasawara hit landed in center fielder Yoennis Cespedes’ glove then squirted out, allowing two runs to score.
Japan’s first two runs may have been lucky, but Iwakuma was just plain good.
The Pacific League MVP shut out the Cubans over six innings, allowing five hits and striking out two on 69 pitches. Cuba’s hitters had trouble making good contact with Iwakuma’s pitches and seemed to hit the ball right to a fielder when they did.
“Of course I felt pressure today,” Iwakuma said. “If we lost today, that would have been the end of it. I wanted to play my role and all of our players played a great game.”
The victory sets up another rematch against South Korea to determine the winner of their second-round pool Thursday. The game will be the fourth meeting between the nations in this tournament.
“Both of us are world-class teams,” Hara said. “That is my honest opinion.”
Japan will send lefty Tetsuya Utsumi, who plays for Hara’s Yomiuri Giants in the NPB, to the mound to make his first WBC start. South Korea will counter with a left-hander of its own, Jang Won Sam.
Norichika Aoki continued to have a very productive WBC, going 4-for-5 with two RBIs. Aoki is batting .391 with six RBIs overall in the tournament.
“Aoki is consistently producing good results,” Hara said. “Tonight he was the best.”
Ichiro Suzuki recorded a single and standup triple to finish 2-for-5. Fellow major leaguer Akinori Iwamura was 1-for-2 with two walks, while Kosuke Fukudome walked twice on an 0-for-2 night and Kenji Johjima went hitless.
“Ichiro got started and had an Ichiro-like game,” Hara said. “I know he is a magnificent player.”
Aoki jump-started Japan in the fifth, reaching on a one-out single and moving to third on a double by Atsunori Inaba. Both scored on Cespedes’ error in center field to make the score 2-0.
Japan padded the lead on an RBI single by Aoki in the fifth and Hiroyuki Nakajima’s run-scoring sacrifice fly in the seventh. Aoki then drove in Ichiro with a single in the ninth to make it 5-0 and end the scoring.