Japan’s WBC team receives hero’s welcome

Japanese team members made a triumphant return to their country Wednesday evening after winning the inaugural World Baseball Classic title with a victory over Cuba in the final.

News photo
Players of Team Japan are welcomed back by hundreds of cheering fans at Narita airport in Chiba Pref.

About a thousand fans lined up to greet the players, minus major leaguers Ichiro Suzuki and Akinori Otsuka, after the team arrived at Narita airport on a chartered jet from San Diego where they beat the powerful Cuban team 10-6 on Monday night.

“We heard that TV ratings for our games surpassed 30 percent and 40 percent in Japan and we also got warm fan support in the United States. I feel very happy that we responded to such enthusiastic support with this title,” manager Sadaharu Oh said.

“Interest becomes huge when Japanese athletes compete in the Olympics and the (soccer) World Cup with a national flag on their jerseys and uniforms. I never thought it would happen to baseball, but it did happen this time,” added Oh, Japanese baseball’s all-time home run leader.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament, said he was surprised at the fans’ enthusiasm.

“I began to feel the significance of what we’ve done — becoming the world’s No. 1 — only when we got a big warm reception like that from the people at the airport,” Matsuzaka said.

“Every time I play for a national team, I get fresh impetus and learn a lot from my teammates,” said the Seibu Lions right-hander, who had also played in a Japan uniform at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.

The hard-throwing pitcher picked up three of the five wins Japan got in the World Baseball Classic. He held three-time Olympic champion Cuba to one run over four innings in the final.

Interest in Japan’s campaign surged as the tournament wore on and the viewer rating hit a high of 56.0 percent during the final, which was broadcast live by a major commercial network.

Seattle Mariners outfielder Suzuki, one of only two major league players on the Japanese roster and in the final, and Texas Rangers right-hander Otsuka left the team Tuesday for their spring training camps in Arizona.

“I felt the spirit and smartness of the Japanese players while playing with this team,” Suzuki told reporters in San Diego a day after Japan’s triumph. “It was a great team and I wish I could play major league games with this team for one season.”

Suzuki was the chief driving force behind Japan’s success, especially when it mattered most, going 3-for-5 with an RBI in a 6-0 shutout of South Korea in the semis and having two hits in the final including an RBI single in the ninth after Cuba pulled within one run.

Otsuka pitched the final 1-2/3 innings to seal the championship for the Japanese, who came back from the brink of elimination after losing twice in pool play in the second round.

The World Baseball Classic gave major league players an opportunity to play for their countries for the first time.

Yet only Suzuki and Otsuka made the final and played against Cuba, a superpower in amateur baseball, after teams loaded with major league stars, such as the United States, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, all crashed out.

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