Japan poised for Cuba's challenge
Country has had success in international play previously
The loss to Cuba that summer prompted the Japanese to re-evaluate how they competed in the Olympics. It was the first time the Americans had used Major League-affiliated players, and the Japanese opted to go one better, sending two players off the rosters of each of the 12 Nippon Professional Baseball clubs to Athens, Greece, in 2004, while the Japan leagues continued with the regular season.
The roster in Athens two years ago included some of the top Japanese Major Leaguers, who are taking part in this World Baseball Classic, including Saturday night's heroes, Koji Uehara and Kosuke Fukudome. To defeat Korea in the semifinals, Uehara pitched seven innings of three-hit, eight-strikeout ball, and Fukudome hit the two-run, pinch-hit, seventh-inning homer off Korea's Byung-Hyun Kim that sent the Japanese on to victory.
Still, during the summer of 2004, the Japanese never faced Cuba in the medal round. They were upset by Australia in the semifinals before coming back to defeat Canada for the bronze. Cuba whipped Australia for the gold.
Since baseball became a medal sport in 1992, the Japanese have won one silver and two bronze medals.
And in the current tournament, which was billed as the first international baseball competition to include Major League players, the Japanese have the two that are left -- Ichiro Suzuki and Akinori Otsuka. The Cubans don't have any.
"When Cubans used metal bats, we truly had different style teams," Oh said. "But now, the style of baseball between Cuba and Japan is very similar. The way they play the game now is more like Japanese style than it is like American style. So Monday, when we meet them, the game will be played in a very similar way. A lot of speed and a lot schemes in the game."