Cuba, Japan surprise Classic finalists
Still, Japan won the one game against Korea that it absolutely had to win. And nothing can be said to diminish the worth of the Japanese team. It is relentlessly strong in the fundamentals. It can pitch and it can catch, and if these two tasks can be accomplished, defeat can always be a stranger. If a Japanese runner has to be moved over, that Japanese runner will be moved over, one way or another.
It is an admirable, professional, precise style of baseball, but it is also quietly aggressive because it consistently takes the game to the other team.
And let us not forget that the Japanese can hit. They have one of the greatest all-around players in the game in Ichiro Suzuki, but they have additional pop in their lineup. The six runs they scored against Korea represented an explosion. The Koreans had given up only eight runs in their previous six tournament games.
Sadaharu Oh - Japanese Manager
And more subjectively, there is this: The Japanese are managed by a transcendent baseball figure, Sadaharu Oh. This is a man of medium height and build, who hit 868 home runs. Now, observing him, you are struck not only by that remarkable number but by his inescapable dignity. The man's career and contributions to baseball almost seem to demand a world championship.
The Cubans are, from the standpoint of expectations for this tournament, larger surprises at this lofty level. But perhaps their arrival at the top of the baseball world should not be so shocking.
They have dominated international play in the past. It is true that they have never previously participated in a tournament that contained this much talent. But they have the great equalizer -- terrific pitching.
The Dominicans had averaged six runs per game in the Classic, but against the Cuban pitching all they could muster was one unearned run. It was a truly impressive performance. "It's a terrific pitching staff," Dominican manager Manny Acta said. "I can see why Cuba dominated the international competition. Their pitching is legit. They can throw guys out there every single day that can pitch in the big leagues. Their pitching is legit, and that's why they beat us."
So this is not the game that form promised, but it is the game that the first Classic delivered. And it promises to be, like the vast majority of the games in this tournament, something special.
As Cuba's manager, Higinio Velez put it Saturday: "It will be a wonderful game. We know the Asians. We have played against the Asians, we know how the Asian teams play, and they're great players. They put everything onto the field, great effort, very similar to Latin American players."