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Cuba reeling after defeat against Japan

3/16/2009 - MLB

SAN DIEGO -- In single file, the Cuban national team slowly paced out of its clubhouse with glum looks and sullen faces. First came Eduardo Paret, the thickly built veteran shortstop, who blankly stared into space. Then came Pedro Lazo, the tall, stout reliever, a Cuban David Wells, who carried an athletic bag over his shoulder, but carried no expression. Even the flashy second baseman, Yulieski Gourriel, slipped on a pair of designer sunglasses to hide the glazed look in his eyes.

Even the friendly and gregarious Dr. Antonio Castro, the team's physician and the son of former Cuban president Fidel Castro, could not muster one word about the game.

"No man, not right now," Castro said when approached by a reporter.

These blank expressions were not unlike those seen on Cuban hitters after being befuddled by Daisuke Matsuzaka in a 6-0 Japan win in the second round of the World Baseball Classic.

In Matsuzaka, who pitched six shutout innings Sunday, the Cubans may have found an even bigger enemy than the United States government. For the third time in major international competition, Matsuzaka has defeated the vaunted Cubans. In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Matsuzaka allowed three runs in 8 1/3 innings in a 6-3 Japan win. Matsuzaka was also the winning pitcher in the 2006 WBC final against Cuba, a 10-6 victory by Japan.

"I knew Cuba was a good team," Matsuzaka said, "but there wasn't anything in particular I was too worried about."

Remarkably, Matsuzaka is 5-0 in the WBC, a type of competition that seems to favor him even more so than his sometimes inconsistent stint as a starter for the Boston Red Sox. While he sometimes struggles with command in the majors, Matsuzaka has walked just five batters in five WBC games. Last season for the Red Sox, Matsuzka walked five or more hitters in eight games.

"While I was warming up, did I look so fierce?" Matsuzaka joked with reporters. "I thought I had a smile on my face, did I not? I thought the team was relaxed. And before the game, I wasn't worried at all."

It's impossible to gauge the mood of the Cubans, aside from their walk to the team bus after the game. Access to Cuban players has been nonexistent. Cuba's press liaison can't be found before or after games, so his workload practically equates to that of the Maytag repairman. Cuban players are not made to participate in postgame news conferences.

Before the game, Cuba manager Higinio Velez chastised a group of reporters who had gathered near the team's clubhouse to try to interview a player or a member of the coaching and training staff.

"You are not supposed to be here," Velez barked. "I will call security if you don't leave."

During Saturday's workout, the Cubans tried to downplay the importance of a rematch with Japan. But in Cuba, the thought of revenge was on the mind of the biggest baseball fan.

"The Japanese team is excellent, I would like our victory in the Classic to be against this team with great technical mastery," Fidel Castro said in a news conference, according to a report out of Cuba.

This Cuban team is one of the strongest to participate in international competition in quite some time, according to several observers, and therefore expectations are immense. Think what you will about Cuba's politics, but there is no denying its passion for baseball and what would likely be its depression should the national team flounder on such an international stage. Now Cuba is just one game from elimination in the WBC. A second-round exit may equate to a bigger outrage in Havana than a resurgence of capitalism. Cuba is now forced to play an elimination game on Monday against Mexico.

"Well, I think this was a game that was not fitting for these two rivals who faced each other," Velez said. "It was quite a difficult game. … Well, we have lost a battle in the war. The war begins again tomorrow."

Touted as the best young pitcher in Cuba, 21-year-old Aroldis Chapman was a tall, wiry bundle of nerves. Cuba's starter could not harness his electric fastball, and his secondary pitches were almost nonexistent.

At several times, Chapman appeared to lose his composure as a result of home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt's strike zone. When taken out of the game in the third inning by pitching coach Pedro Perez, Chapman sulked on the mound and would not face Perez. As he reached the dugout on his way out, one of Chapman's teammates extended his hand out to give a high-five. Chapman ignored the teammate and went straight into the clubhouse.

"Perhaps he felt the pressure," Velez said. "Maybe he was not on his best game. He was not at his best. He has a great future."

In one sequence in the first inning, Chapman threw a 100 mph fastball that went right at Japan left fielder Norichika Aoki's head. Not surprisingly, Aoki found the pitch to be quite an insult.

"I wanted to go out there and knock him out," he told reporters after the game.

In the end, Japan did not knock out the Cubans. It only left them speechless.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.