SAN DIEGO — Three years later and the Cubans still haven’t figured out Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Matsuzaka threw six shutout innings and got some help from his batters as Samurai Japan got off to a quick start in the second round of the World Baseball Classic with a 6-0 victory over Cuba in front of 20,179 fans at PETCO Park on Sunday.
“Yesterday I was thinking about Cuba and simulating the game in my head,” Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said. “Today’s game was so much better than that.”
Matsuzaka, who earned the win in Japan’s 10-6 victory in the 2006 WBC final on the same field, struck out eight and allowed five hits in the win to pull his team within one victory of a berth in the semifinal round.
“It’s not very often that this happens to us,” Cuba manager Higinio Velez said. “But sometimes it happens. The guys prepared for this (game), but they knew this could happen.”
The Cubans rolled into the second round with an unblemished 3-0 record but met their match in Matsuzaka.
“I just thought about the last time (in 2006) and that’s how I pitched today,” Matsuzaka said. “In any case, compared to the first round, my fastball was good. It worked for me today.”
Japan will play South Korea on Tuesday with the winner advancing to the next round.
Eight of Japan’s nine starting batters (and pinch hitter Munenori Kawasaki) recorded a hit on a big day at the plate.
“Matsuzaka-san was pitching at his best,” outfielder Norichika Aoki said. “If your pitcher is that good, then you can focus on your batting.”
Japan chased celebrated Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman from the game with a three-run third and had their way with Cuba’s other pitchers as well. Japan finished the game with 12 hits.
Chapman gave up three runs on three hits in 2 1/3 innings to take the loss.
“I think they are great pitchers,” Velez said of the game’s two starters. “He (Chapman) is a 21-year-old guy, who still has a long way to go. Perhaps he felt the pressure. He was able to pitch, but he was not at his best.”
Chapman entered the game with a lot of hype after breaking a Cuban record with a 164-kph pitch in December.
Aoki saw a 161-kph pitch during his first at-bat, a ball which came close enough to his head to force the outfielder to duck.
“I was going to kick his butt,” Aoki joked after the game.
Chapman may have had the speed, but shaky control led to his early exit.
“It wasn’t that fast,” third baseman Shuichi Murata said of Chapman’s pitching. “I thought it would be faster. But his balls didn’t come as fast as it looked from his arm swing. He was so obvious between balls and strikes, so it was easy to look.”
The loss sends the Cubans into an elimination game against Mexico on Monday. Despite the loss, Velez insists he isn’t concerned about his team’s morale.
“They are prepared and they know what they need to do,” Velez said. “That’s why right now, we are not talking all that much, but we do know about the objective and what we came here for.”
Japan went ahead 1-0 in the third inning on reliever Norberto Gonzalez’s bases-loaded wild pitch to Aoki which scored Akinori Iwamura.
Aoki doubled the lead in the same at-bat with a single to center to bring home Ichiro Suzuki. Murata drove in Japan’s third run of the inning with a sacrifice fly to left.
“We scored a run on a wild pitch,” Aoki said. “So I was relieved that I only had to hit a grounder or sacrifice fly.”
Ichiro grounded into a fielder’s choice that brought in a run in the fourth and Seiichi Uchikawa drove in a run in the fifth to make the score 5-0.
Murata added an RBI single in the ninth to end the scoring.
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