Ichiro comes up big for Japan in win over Cuba

Updated: March 21, 2006, 8:22 AM ET
Associated Press

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SAN DIEGO -- Pitcher Koji Uehara formed his champagne-soaked hair into a mohawk and chanted "Ichiro! Ichiro!" through Japan's victorious clubhouse. His teammates howled, even Ichiro Suzuki himself.

Nobuhiko Matsunaka
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesNobuhiko Matsunaka scored three runs and had three hits for Japan on Monday night.

For a night, every player with Japan on his jersey earned equal star status, and not one wasted the chance to celebrate like a World Series winner. And the typically serious Suzuki revealed an emotional side rarely seen by those around him with the Seattle Mariners.

Japan won the true world championship, capturing the inaugural World Baseball Classic 10-6 on Monday night against a gutsy Cuban squad with no big leaguers.

In the Japanese players' eyes, a trophy from this tournament meant as much or more than the thought of getting a ring in late October.

"We really wanted to win this championship today, and I didn't even think about the upcoming regular season of 2006," Suzuki said. "It's not an ideal thing for a player to think, but I really didn't care if I would get injured in this game -- that's how much I really wanted to win this one. That's how we were driven to this championship."

Gambatte, Nippon! -- "Let's go, Japan!"

Japanese coach Yoshitaka Katori, safely keeping the winning ball for the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame while his countrymen walked a victory lap, could only imagine how fans were reacting when the game ended early Tuesday afternoon in Japan.

Meanwhile, there was a feeling of sadness in the streets of Havana after the Cubans fell short of adding another major tournament title to their long list of accolades over decades of international dominance.

It was an unlikely final at sold-out Petco Park -- minus the United States and Dominican Republic teams loaded with major league stars -- and by far the most festive atmosphere since the fancy downtown ballpark opened in March 2004. Certainly it was the city's biggest baseball showcase since the 1998 World Series.

All-Tournament Team
C Tomoya Satozaki, Japan
.409, 1 HR, 5 RBI
1B Seung Yeop Lee, Korea
.333, 5 HR, 10 RBI
2B Yulieski Gourriel, Cuba
.303, 2 HR, 6 RBI
SS Derek Jeter, United States
.450, 9 hits
3B Adrian Beltre, Dominican Republic
.300, 4 HR, 9 RBI
OF Ken Griffey Jr., United States
.524, 3 HR, 10 RBI
OF Jong Beom Lee, Korea
.400, 6 2B, 10 hits
OF Ichiro Suzuki, Japan
.364, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 4 SB
DH Yoandy Garlobo, Cuba
.480, 1 HR, 4 RBI
P Yadel Marti, Cuba
1-0, 0.00 ERA, 12.2 IP, 2 SV, 11 K
P Daisuke Matsuzaka, Japan
3-0, 1.88 ERA, 10 K
P Chan Ho Park, Korea
0.00 ERA, 10 IP, 3 SV, 8 K

MVP: Daisuke Matsuzaka

The Japanese jumped on the Cubans early playing the small-ball game that helped them get this far.

"It's wonderful," said Japan's Kosuke Fukudome, who hit a two-run, pinch-hit single in the ninth inning two days after his two-run homer as a pinch-hitter helped lift Japan to a 6-0 semifinal victory over rival and previously unbeaten South Korea.

"We came here to be the champion, and now we have it," he said.

Major League Baseball's big experiment became an instant success -- Monday's game drew 42,696 and the entire tournament attendance was 737,112 -- and commissioner Bud Selig has raved about the ratings. Japan boasted just two major leaguers on its roster.

For Cuba, there was plenty of reason to celebrate, too. The team almost didn't get to participate because of the communist Caribbean nation's touchy political relationship with the United States.

This team that considers itself a bunch of amateurs showed it can clearly compete with anybody.

"What Cuba has shown to the world is not only that we could play up to par with other major leaguers," outfielder Frederich Cepeda said. "We are not professional, we are amateur. We don't get paid for doing this. We deserve a high place in baseball because we do this with sacrifice, with human value and courage and sportsmanship, and because we give our utmost in order to come to the field and show what good baseball is all about."

Suzuki doubled, singled and drove in a run. He also scored three times, including in a four-run first when Cuba needed three pitchers to get through the inning.

Suzuki singled in the ninth to score Munenori Kawasaki on a close play at the plate and make it 7-5. Kawasaki slid, turned and stuck his right hand just inside of catcher Ariel Pestano's left foot to -- perhaps -- touch the plate. Japan broke it open on Fukudome's hit and a sacrifice fly by Michihiro Ogasawara.

Akinori Otsuka, the only other major leaguer on Japan's roster aside from Suzuki, allowed a run in the ninth before closing it out for a save. Earlier in the day, he called former Padres teammate Trevor Hoffman for permission to have AC/DC's "Hells Bells" played when he came in from the bullpen.

After the final out, Otsuka was mobbed near the mound by his teammates. The Japanese then tossed manager Sadaharu Oh into the air twice.

"It's No. 1. It's amazing. We're champions," said tournament MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka, Japan's starting pitcher who's hoping he caught the attention of some major league scouts.

Two Cuban players posed with Suzuki for a photo. Selig presented the championship trophy to Japan, and Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda gave the tournament MVP award to Matsuzaka, then later made his way to Suzuki and Otsuka for a congratulatory handshake.

Following a final wave to the fans chanting his name, Suzuki scurried into the clubhouse to party.

His cap on backward, he yelled to his teammates: "You have to respect the old guy. The old guy is me."

The Baseball Hall of Fame quickly collected equipment and clothing for a season-opening WBC exhibit in Cooperstown that will show off more than a dozen artifacts from the tournament, including Suzuki's batting helmet.

From Panama to the Netherlands, Italy to Australia, the Classic provided some memorable moments Selig hopes will only boost the interest in baseball.

A crowd of Cuban fans, some draped in flags, played drums and sang in a large group outside the stadium more than two hours before the first pitch. On the ballpark's top concourse, fans waited to have tiny Cuban and Japanese flags painted on their faces.

Major league home run king Hank Aaron, with 755 homers to his name, threw out the ceremonial first pitch and signed the ball for Pestano.

"This is wonderful, no doubt about it," Aaron said. "You can tell by the fans that it's catching on and is going to get better and better."


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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