ATHENS, Greece -- Japan found its own version of Ben Sheets.
Right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka shut out Cuba for eight innings Tuesday, leading Japan to a 6-3 victory that will go down in
Olympic history and his country's lore.
Just as Sheets led the United States to gold in Sydney four
years ago by dominating the Cubans, Matsuzaka led his
baseball-enthralled nation to new heights in international play.
The round-robin victory was a breakthrough for Japan, which sat on the sideline while Cuba and the United States won the first
three golds in Olympic play.
"We want to bring home a good souvenir from the tournament," said Norihiro Nakamura, who hit a solo home run, "and we also want to bring home a medal for our coach, who is not here."
Japan's manager Shigeo Nagashima suffered a stroke in March and did not accompany the team to Athens. He was replaced by Kiyoshi Nakahata.
Japan's major leagues sent an all-pro team to Athens for the
first time, hoping to close the gap with amateur baseball's most
celebrated squad. Behind Matsuzaka, the Japanese did just that.
Their 23-year-old pitcher allowed only four hits as Japan pulled ahead 6-0 after eight innings. Ariel Pestano's two-run double with one out in the ninth broke the shutout.
It was only Cuba's third loss in four Olympics, a barometer of
its world dominance at the amateur level.
Cuba (2-1) and Japan (3-0) were the two gold medal favorites
heading into the eight-team tournament for which the United States didn't qualify. Their first head-to-head matchup indicated that Cuba's
"Big Red Machine" is no longer in the lead.
The Cubans had their 21-game Olympic winning streak snapped by the Netherlands in Sydney, where professional players stocked rosters for the first time. Former major leaguer Ken Brauckmiller shut down the Cubans in a 4-2 win during round-robin play.
The Cubans seemed to be back on stride by the medal round in Sydney, knocking Japan out in the semifinals 3-0 before Sheets beat them with a three-hitter in the title game, a 4-0 U.S. win.
Matsuzaka was on the team that left Sydney disappointed. The
former high school sensation more than made up for it on Tuesday.
His claim to fame in Japan came in 1988, when he pitched 27
innings in three days to win the prestigious Koshien high school
tournament. He threw a no-hitter in the title game, even though he
had thrown 17 innings two days earlier.
The Seibu Lions pitcher was the Rookie of the Year when he
turned pro. This season, he is 8-6 with four shutouts in the Japan
He gave up only four hits and one walk through eight innings,
before fading in the ninth.
"He wanted to throw until the end," said Nakahata. Left-hander Hirotoshi Ishii finished a combined seven-hitter.
Cuba's hopes weren't severely damaged by the loss.
"What is important for us is to reach the semifinals. Once we
get there, we can go after the medal," said manager Higinio Velez.
Matsuzaka's only fright came in the fourth, when he was hit on his pitching arm above the elbow by a line drive. He went to the
dugout for a few minutes, then returned and escaped a threat.
Japan's offense provided plenty of support.
Kazuhiro Wada hit a two-run homer in the second inning off
Vicyohandri Odelin. Kenji Jojima and Nakamura added solo shots in
the top of the fourth, leaving it up to Matsuzaka to do the rest.