FUKUOKA – With both Japan and Cuba having already booked a spot in the second round of the World Baseball Classic, their clash on Wednesday at Fukuoka Dome presents a chance for an important tuneup against a dangerous foe.
Should the two squads face each other in the modified double-elimination format of the second round, the stakes will likely be much higher.
“We are going to play to win, and in the process learn whatever we can that will help us succeed in the next round,” Japan captain Shinnosuke Abe said Tuesday morning after practice.
The Cubans have been the most dominant team in first-round Pool A play, emphasizing that with a 12-0 mercy-rule thrashing of China on Monday, something that was not lost on the members of two-time defending champion Japan.
“The Cuban batters take full swings,” Abe said. “We need to find ways to prevent them from driving the ball a long way. They’re going to score, but we need to be able to avoid big innings. Today and tomorrow, I’m going to meet with the pitchers and figure out a game plan.”
Cuba’s smashing victory over China saw the pool’s first home runs but at the same time, they began heeding manager Victor Mesa’s pleas to hit more to the opposite field.
“They went the other way a lot yesterday,” Japan batting coach Kazuyoshi Tatsunami said. “As a batter, that opens up your game, gives you more time to see the ball, makes it easier to adjust. It’s what we preach in Japan.”
“But even when their big hitters are keyed to go the other way, they can still turn on an inside pitch. If you come inside to a hitter, he takes notice and thinks about it. You need to pitch them inside, to keep them honest, but you really need to locate.”
Abe, who had a big at-bat off the bench in Japan’s come-from-behind win over Brazil on Saturday, has yet to get a hit and would like to change that.
“They have a lot of different pitchers,” he said. “So I don’t have a clear idea of who I’ll face, but I’d like to get my first hit and get untracked.”
Japan head coach Masataka Nashida said it was important to compete, but there was no point in overdoing it.
“We want to battle, but we’re not going to go overboard,” he said. “We might have to face them again, and there’s no need to show all our cards.”
“This is a great opportunity for everyone to get more game-ready, because we’re not in the condition we’ll need to be in.”
The chief concerns for Cuba on Tuesday were the inability to get down sacrifice bunts and the batting form of captain and third baseman Yuliesky Gourriel, who Mesa had dropped from third to seventh in his order on Monday.
“The fact is that I hadn’t been hitting,” Gourriel said. “But the team won and everyone hit well. That enabled me to relax and I believe my form will just get better from this point on.”
During Cuba’s practice, Mesa, who played corporate league ball in Japan at the end of his career, had his big swingers practicing various types of bunts and fake bunts for an hour.
“The Japanese hitters are all such good bunters,” said Gourriel, who was picked out by Mesa as one of his players who disliked bunting. “Obviously, we want to compete with them in every area of the game, and we’d like to be able to bunt the way they do.”
“I’ve played against Japan so many times, in many big games. I am looking forward to competing against them and having a good game.”