SAN DIEGO — Japan manager Tatsunori Hara believes his team can beat anyone.
His theory will be put to the test against Cuba.
The two storied baseball powers were set to meet again when Japan takes on Cuba in the second round of the World Baseball Classic at PETCO Park on Sunday afternoon.
The last time the teams met in San Diego, Japan defeated the Cubans 10-6 in the final of the 2006 WBC.
“Yes, I remember,” Japan outfielder Norichika Aoki said. “I remember I went to the locker room and we had a big celebration. I just hope this time is going to be the same.”
The Cubans, who lost that championship game three years ago, preferred to forget about the past and weren’t eager to discuss the subject less then 24 hours before the rematch.
“I don’t see it as you paint it for me,” Cuban manager Higinio Velez said. “I just see this as a new game, a new and wonderful opportunity.”
The Japanese could open the game at a disadvantage if ailing shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima isn’t able to play. The 26-year-old Nakajima, who didn’t practice on Saturday, is suffering from a fever, leaving his status for the game unknown.
“His fever is down now, I understand,” Hara said. “He’s not practicing today just in case. It’s more important for him to rest today, which is why he is not practicing.
“He’s a young player, a gutsy guy and I expect he is going to be ready to play.”
Cuba, which won Pool B in the first round, enters the game 4-0 and on the heels of a 16-4 domination of Mexico in its group final.
Cuba leads the WBC with a team batting average of .394, a slugging percentage of .818, and a .478 on-base percentage.
“This team is strong,” Aoki said of Cuba. “Their bat speed, compared with major leaguers, I think is faster. That’s the impression I have so far.”
Velez’s squad has pounded the opposition, outscoring opponents 29-8 in its three victories. Not resting on their laurels, the Cubans are eager to take their shots at the defending champions.
“I think the Japanese team is wonderful,” right fielder Alfredo Despaigne said. “They’ve shown this over and over again. The Cuban team is eager to win and without a doubt, it will be an outstanding game tomorrow.”
Hara, while praising Cuba’s baseball might, was confident his team is up for the task.
“Rather than thinking and worrying about the Cuban team, I am the manager of Samurai Japan,” Hara said. “I am concentrating on my own team. One step at a time, and whether it’s Cuba, or anyone else, we can beat them. That’s what I think.”
As was the case in the 2006 final, Daisuke Matsuzaka will get the start for Japan. Matsuzaka’s condition is a bit of an unknown since the Boston Red Sox hurler hasn’t pitched since Japan’s game against South Korea on March 7.
Matsuzaka threw 65 pitches in Japan’s 14-2 win over South Korea and tournament rules forced him to miss a scheduled exhibition start against the San Francisco Giants in Arizona last Wednesday. WBC rules state a pitcher reaching a pitch count of 50 or higher must have four days’ rest.
Japan quickly reshuffled its schedule to allow Matsuzaka to pitch against the Chicago Cubs the next day but was then rebuked by the Red Sox.
“He wasn’t able to play in the exhibitions, but if it is Daisuke, regardless of what situation he is placed in, he is going to do his best tomorrow,” Hara said. “There’s no question about that.”
Velez is widely expected to counter with left-handed sensation Aroldis Chapman, though the wily manager was not tipping his hand early.
“Matsuzaka is always an outstanding pitcher and we will also have a great pitcher,” Velez said. “We respect him, but we will do absolutely everything possible to win the game.”
Cuba which is a favorite to win the 2009 WBC title, after finishing as the runnerup in 2006 and at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, pledges to take things one game at a time in its quest for a first-place trophy.
“They are a great team,” Velez said of Japan. “We respect every single one of the great teams. There are no guarantees of winning. We always respect the great teams and we get prepared for them.
“Japan is a great team,” he continued. “They are a club that gives everything and leaves everything on the field.
“They are really fast in terms of offensive plays and we need to beat that. We need to be ready psychologically as well as physically and technically to beat them.”
For expanded WBC coverage, visit The Japan Times’ Web site.
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