Japan, Cuba reach final despite lack of big leaguers

Monday, March 20, 2006

SAN DIEGO -- So much for major leaguers being the best in the world.

The two teams playing tonight for the championship of the World Baseball Classic, Cuba and Japan, have a total of two players on big league rosters.

The Cubans have none, and Japan's Ichiro Suzuki had little insight to offer on his opponent.

"In terms of Cuba, I have no idea what to expect," the Seattle Mariners' star leadoff hitter and right fielder said. "I don't know any of their names. The fact they've come this far shows they are a team with serious potential."

And serious credentials -- last year's World Cup title, the 2004 Olympic championship and a victory in the 2003 Pan American Games to name just a few.

The virtually unknown Cubans, with their deep pitching staff and undeniable spirit, have won all but two of their last 24 games in international play with one of those losses coming to Japan in the Athens Olympics.

The Cubans are a confident bunch who consider themselves amateurs despite their fame back home. They advanced with an emotional 3-1 victory over the Dominican Republic and its loaded lineup Saturday while wearing their lucky red uniforms for the second time this tournament. Japan then avenged two earlier WBC losses to South Korea and won 6-0 in the second semifinal.

"I want you to know that what you saw today is what will continue to happen," said Cuban outfielder Yoandy Garlobo, who drove in a run in the decisive seventh inning against the Dominicans. "The Cubans will continue with this pace. ... You will see the final, and we're prepared for this physically and mentally. Cuba is prepared."

Defection rumor

There was a flurry of speculation Sunday that a Cuban player had defected, though Major League Baseball and Cuban officials quickly nixed that.

"No, there is no defection," Cuban spokesman Pedro Cabrera said after the team went through informal weight training and drills at Petco Park. "The Cuban team is in very high spirits. The aspirations from when we left Havana have been multiplied."

MLB spokesman Pat Courtney said he visited the Cuban clubhouse Sunday and saw no signs of disarray, though acknowledged "I didn't count heads."

While neither team planned to announce its starting pitcher until late Sunday, Cuba said it was deciding between two options. Ormari Romero would be on turn after the right-hander beat Puerto Rico in the second round to clinch a spot in the semifinals.

Japan is likely to start right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, who led the Pacific League with 215 innings and 226 strikeouts for the Seibu Lions last year. Matsuzaka aspires to play in the United States and would like to use this as an audition for major league scouts.

For the Cubans, the unusually cool weather in Southern California has been challenging. The temperature was 58 degrees at first pitch for their game Saturday, and players wore blue undershirts beneath their jerseys. Pitchers warmed up in jackets.

Cuban manager Higinio Velez had two players throwing in the bullpen in the first inning against the Dominicans, though he stuck with 21-year-old Yadel Marti, who worked 12 2-3 shutout innings in four Classic appearances. Neither the finesse pitcher, Marti, nor the hard-throwing Pedro Lazo, Saturday's winner, will be available for the title matchup because of tournament rules.

Now, the Cubans will try to slow down a Japan offense that has been the most productive in the Classic. Ichiro has a seven-game WBC hitting streak and had three hits, two stolen bases and an RBI against previously unbeaten South Korea. Kosuke Fukudome added a pinch-hit, two-run homer.

Even Ichiro, typically all business as he goes about his daily routine, has shown more emotion during this event. He's had fun, too, waving to fans from the outfield and welcoming the boos from the South Korean fans -- saying Sunday "they didn't boo me hard enough."

"I'm really proud that I'm only one of two players from major league baseball in the final game," he said through a translator. "I sense MLB is hurting a little bit. ... I do have the Japanese flag on my shoulder. That might be the reason I became more emotional during these games."

Akinori Otsuka, a former Padres reliever now with the Texas Rangers, is the other major leaguer for Japan.

This is certainly not the final matchup everybody envisioned when the WBC began. A clash of talent-laden teams full of major leaguers from the United States and Dominican Republic would have been more like it for organizers.

This just goes to show the tournament truly is the "Clasico Mundial de Beisbol" -- the WORLD Baseball Classic -- not another version of the American All-Star game.

Still, the absent major leaguers were on people's minds.

One American journalist mistook Ichiro for Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui.

"Hey, I'm not Hideki, I'm Ichiro," he said.

No doubt the Cubans know his name even if he doesn't yet know theirs.

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