Japan-Cuba rivalry predates Classic

Teams reup '06 final Sunday, but the history runs deeper

In 2006, Ichiro Suzuki and Team Japan took down Cuba to win the inaugural Classic. (KC Alfred/AP)

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SAN DIEGO -- The last time Cuba and Japan faced each other at PETCO Park in the World Baseball Classic, the championship of the world was on the line.

And with Ichiro Suzuki as the hitting star and right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka the tournament Most Valuable Player, the Japanese won, 10-6.

"I always thought we needed a good event to decide who's best in the baseball world," Ichiro said at the time. "I believe it was a very meaningful one for that purpose."

That was almost precisely three years ago and once again, on Sunday afternoon, the international protagonists will be back at it again as the second round of the 2009 Classic opens at PETCO Park at 4 p.m. ET. Mexico plays Korea on Sunday night in the back end of the day-night doubleheader.

Matsuzaka will be back on the mound against left-handed Cuban starter Aroldis Chapman. But the idea isn't revenge, said Higinio Velez, the manager of the Cuban team in '06 and again this year.

"For a lot of people, they are saying that this is a retake on what we did last [time]," Velez said. "But, you know what? We are confronting a lot of very excellent teams. This is not like a rematch, really. This is just another game."

Three years ago, the Japanese put the crowning touch on the 17-day tournament. This year, they emerged from the Asian bracket as the second seed with two wins in three games, the lone loss a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Korea.

Cuba has been to the finals in international tournaments 40 times in a row, including a loss last summer to Korea in the gold-medal game of the Beijing Olympics. This past week, the Cubans were undefeated in Pool B play in Mexico City, defeating the Mexicans in the final game to earn top seed in this round.

In 48 international tournaments dating back to 1939, the Cubans have only finished third twice -- and never below -- winning 38 of them.

"They have a great ballclub; they're talented," said Vinny Castilla, the former big league third baseman who is Mexico's manager. "They have running skills and good power. They've got good pitching. They've been playing together for a long time and a lot of the players have big league talent. A lot of them can play in the big leagues right now."

The first Classic tournament captured the fancy and frenzy of fans everywhere, particularly in the Caribbean and Asian nations, whose teams made it to the final games. Three years ago, the semifinals included three of the four teams here this week, with Japan defeating Korea in one semifinal game and the Cubans vanquishing the Dominican Republic in the other.

This time, Mexico replaces the Dominicans, eliminated by The Netherlands in a stunning first-round upset.

The 2006 finals was the biggest game in Japanese baseball history.

A big reason for Japan's victory was Matsuzaka, who, after shutting down the Cubans for four innings in the finals, finished the tournament 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA -- two earned runs in 13 innings pitched. He'll be facing a younger, much sleeker Cuban model this time around.

"The Cuban team, their strength, in detail, I cannot tell you," said Tatsunori Hara, the manager of the Yomiuri Giants who replaced the legendary Sadaharu Oh this time around. "But I do know that they are balanced out and a very good and strong team. And that's the extent I know."

Before that '06 victory, Japan had lost the gold-medal game to Cuba in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics and dropped a semifinal contest to the Cubans four years later in Australia. During the last two Olympics the two teams didn't face in the medal round. At Athens in 2004, Japan beat Cuba during pool play and Matsuzaka pitched into the ninth inning to earn the win.

Last year at Beijing, Cuba defeated Japan, 4-2, in the Olympic opener for both teams.

The Japanese had to play without three of their stars from the first World Baseball Classic -- Ichiro, Matsuzaka and Kosuke Fukudome. All were playing for their respective big league teams and because of current rules couldn't participate in the Olympics. All three are back on the roster this spring.

Unlike the Classic, MLB doesn't allow players on the 25-man rosters of the 30 teams to play in other international baseball tournaments, including the Olympics.

The Japanese, who allow two players on each of the Nippon Professional Baseball League teams to participate in the Olympics, have a silver and two bronze baseball Olympic medals. They lost the bronze last year to the U.S.

Cuba last won Olympic gold at Athens in 2004, defeating Australia in the final game. In the five summer Olympics since 1992, when baseball became a gold-medal sport, Cuba has won three golds and two silvers.

With Oh managing in 2006, the Japanese finished 5-3 in the Classic, during which Ichiro hit .364 (12-for-33) with hits in each of Japan's eight games.

In their '06 semifinal, current Orioles pitcher and Yomiuri veteran Koji Uehara held Korea to three hits for seven innings as Japan won, 6-0. In the finals, Matsuzaka whiffed five, allowed only four hits and a single run, which came on Eduardo Paret's homer to lead off the bottom of the first inning.

At that juncture, the Japanese were already leading, 4-0.

In all fairness, Cuba had used two of its best pitchers in its semifinal game to defeat the Dominican Republic, 3-1 -- Yadel Marti and Pedro Lazo. Ormani Romero started against the Japanese, lasting four batters and 23 pitches.

Velez, the manager of the Cuban National Team and the president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, said his club didn't learn much about Major Leaguers the last time around. But MLB certainly learned something about the Cubans.

"I don't think that you knew the Cuban ballplayers, and nobody really thought that we were at the level that we were," he said. "We have a great league in Cuba. We play all year long, and I'm telling you, be patient, wait for the Cubans, wait to see the Cubans."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.