FUKUOKA – Yasmani Tomas belted a third-inning solo home run and Alfredo Despaigne hit a three-run shot that iced the game in the eighth inning as Cuba defeated Japan 6-3 in the teams’ first-round Pool A finale at Fukuoka Dome.
The victory, Cuba’s first in four WBC games against Japan, earned manager Victor Mesa’s men the Pool A championship. They will open quarterfinal Pool 1 at Tokyo Dome on Friday against Pool B runnerup the Netherlands. Japan will play the second game, against Pool B winner and longtime Asian rival Taiwan. The winner and runnerup at Tokyo Dome will advance to the final round in San Francisco.
Tomas’ long homer, deep into the left-field stands off lefty Kenji Otonari, opened the third inning.
Otonari, who pitches for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in this park, retired the first six batters with ease before Tomas spoiled his outing in front of his home fans. He left after three innings.
Masahiro Tanaka, who was unconvincing in Japan’s opener against Brazil, entered in the fourth and surrendered a run on a single and a double by designated hitter Frederich Cepeda.
Tanaka, who allowed first-inning run against Brazil and four hits in two innings before being pulled, was able to rebuild his credit against Cuba. After a strikeout and a single, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace set the next five batters down swinging.
Pitching coach Osamu Higashio put a positive spin on Tanaka’s outing.
“It was easy to see which pitches of his were getting hit and which he could get outs with,” Higashio said. “In that respect, it was a valuable lesson for him.”
Japan managed to get a runner as far as third in the top of the sixth inning, when a one-out walk and Sho Nakata’s second single put runners on the corners only for lefty reliever Norberton Gonzalez to get Atsunori Inaba to hit a 3-1 pitch into a double play.
Yomiuri Giants right-hander Hirokazu Sawamura took the mound in the bottom of the sixth and promptly surrendered a run. A leadoff double by Jose Fernandez set the table and Jose Abreu singled in Cuba’s third run.
Sidearm southpaw Masahiko Morifuku, Japan’s fourth pitcher, gained the distinction of being the first man to deny Cuba a run, when he worked a scoreless seventh. But the calm did not last, as right-hander Takeru Imamura surrendered a walk, a single and a three-run homer to Despaigne.
Japan loaded the bases with one out in the top of the ninth on three straight walks. Struggling leadoff man Hisayoshi Chono broke up the shutout with an infield single, and Takashi Toritani, who started on the bench, drilled a pitch to center for a sacrifice fly. Hirokazu Ibata singled in another run, but reserve catcher Ryoji Aikawa struck out to end the game.
Japan outfielder Seiichi Uchikawa was left out of the starting lineup after complaining of discomfort in his lower back during practice on Tuesday.