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Unheralded Iwakuma makes his international mark at the Classic


SAN DIEGO — Baseball fans around the globe knew about pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish before the start of the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

What they got Wednesday night was a crash course in Hisashi Iwakuma.

Deemed not fit enough to make Japan’s Olympic roster in 2008, Iwakuma had the last laugh by leading Samurai Japan past a powerful Cuban team in the second round of the WBC at PETCO Park.

Iwakuma didn’t have an overpowering outing against Cuba and had a few rough patches on the way to the victory.

But the fact Japan is advancing to the semifinals made it a perfect evening for the reigning Pacific League MVP.

“I am here on behalf of Team Japan,” Iwakuma said. “Whatever job I was given, I wanted to complete. Rather than being happy about the victory, I am much happier that I was able to do what I was supposed to do.”

Japan’s hopes of a WBC repeat fell on Iwakuma’s shoulders after ace Yu Darvish was beaten by South Korea on Tuesday night. That loss put Japan in a do-or-die game against the Cubans.

Facing elimination against a Cuban team that entered the game 7-3 all-time versus Japan, Iwakuma responded in MVP fashion.

The 2008 Sawamura Award winner (given to the best pitcher in the league) rarely let a ball leave the infield, recording 14 groundouts and giving up just two flyouts and five hits in six innings.

Iwakuma didn’t allow a baserunner with less than two outs, making it hard for the Cuban offense to get anything going.

“I was careful about my control on my low balls,” Iwakuma said. “Even when I had to throw high balls I tried to make them hit grounders with my ‘shuuto.’ I wasn’t going for strikeouts, but trying to make them hit infield grounders. That worked out pretty good for me.”

The win was just an extension of a career resurgence for the eight-year veteran, who was slowed by injuries and poor performance from 2005 until last season.

Iwakuma had back-to-back 15-win seasons for the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 2003 and 2004 before going 15-22 in his first three seasons for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

He bounced back in a big way in 2008, going 21-4 and winning the Pacific League MVP and Sawamura awards.

Iwakuma’s ’08 form has carried over to the WBC, where he’s 1-1 and has given up one run in 10 innings. He also dismissed the notion the irregular pitching schedule of the WBC would have any effect on him moving forward.

“Since coming over here I’ve been practicing well,” Iwakuma said. “Once I am in the game, I feel that I can do whatever it takes.

“Under the circumstances, I am making adjustments,” he added. “I didn’t have to make a particularly big adjustment on anything. I am ready to go anytime, anywhere.”

Because he threw 69 pitches in the win, Iwakuma won’t be available to pitch again unless Japan reaches the WBC final.

WBC rules state that pitchers who throw 50 or more pitches must not pitch again until at least four days have passed.

When asked if he would mind pitching in the final as a reliever, possibly behind Darvish, Iwakuma quickly said he was more than willing to if needed.

“Of course,” Iwakuma said. “Whatever they ask me to do, in whichever position, I need to complete my role and that’s what I will do.”