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By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
SAN DIEGO -- Baseball fans around the globe have long been clamoring for an authentic world champion. Finally they have one.
Japan is the winner of the inaugural World Baseball Classic. And now, baseball is not only spoken here, it is spoken everywhere.
The Japanese put the crowning touch on the 17-day tournament that was played in Tokyo, Arizona, Florida, Puerto Rico and Southern California with the climax coming on Monday night at PETCO Park.
Final score: Japan 10, Cuba 6.
The tournament captured the fancy and frenzy of fans everywhere, particularly in the Caribbean and Asian nations, whose teams made it to the final games. And Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka was named the MVP.
"The intensity in the stands as well as the intensity on the playing field was absolutely remarkable, and I'm not sure that going into it you could have felt that," Commissioner Bud Selig said about the legacy of the Classic, the first international baseball tournament to include Major League players. "I'm very confident that this will be the platform that we use to take this sport internationally to the dimension that I want to take it and believe that we will."
Selig was right on the mark. The game Monday drew 42,696 and the three sellout crowds in San Diego -- for the semifinal games and the final -- brought the 39-game tournament total to 737,112.
Monday's game was the biggest in Japanese baseball history, and the first time they vanquished Cuba when all the marbles were on the line.
A big reason for Japan's victory was Matsuzaka, who after shutting down the Cubans for four innings on Monday, finished the tournament 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA -- two earned runs in 13 innings pitched.
Heretofore, Japan had lost the gold-medal game to Cuba in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics and dropped a semifinal contest to the Cubans four years later in Australia. At Athens, Greece, in 2004, though the two teams didn't face in the medal round, Japan beat Cuba during pool play, and Matsuzaka pitched into the ninth inning and earned the win.
"When I was told two days ago by the manager that I would be starting the final game, it really fired me up," Matsuzaka said. "This was the first time for me to face the Cubans since the Athens Olympics. They always have these intimidating hitters, but I wasn't scared to pitch against them."
The Japanese have a silver and two bronze baseball Olympic medals. And Monday night, they finally walked away with the gold.
With legends Sadaharu Oh managing the team and Ichiro Suzuki in right field, the Japanese finished 5-3 in the tournament, defeating archrivals Korea and Cuba during the past three days.
During both games, Ichiro was dropped to third in the lineup, and he finished the tournament hitting .364 (12-for-33) with hits in each of Japan's eight games.
Asked if he had turned it up a notch in San Diego, Ichiro said: "It was probably not a good thing for me to think, but I didn't care if I got injured. That's how much I wanted to win the championship."
The tournament wasn't without some grief for the Japanese. Japan lost to the U.S. in the opening game of the second round when plate umpire Bob Davidson negated what would've been its fourth run when he called Tsuyoshi Nishioka out for not tagging up on a sacrifice fly, overturning a call made by his colleague, second base umpire Brian Knight. But the Americans were later eliminated by Mexico, and Japan survived a tiebreaker to make it into the final games, where its starting pitching was flawless.
On Saturday, Koji Uehara held Korea on three hits for seven innings as Japan defeated the Koreans, 6-0. On Monday, Matsuzaka whiffed five, allowed only four hits and a single run, which came on Eduardo Paret's homer to lead off the bottom of the first inning.
At that juncture, the Japanese were already leading, 4-0.
"We had the lead, and I knew we had other pitchers to come behind me," Matsuzaka said. "So I wanted to throw my hardest on every pitch."
The Japanese scored four times in the top of the first against three Cuban hurlers and hit only one ball out of the infield -- Toshiaki Iame's dribbler of a single up the middle that scored a pair of runs.
In all fairness, Cuba had used two of its best pitchers to defeat the Dominican Republic, 3-1, on Saturday -- Yadel Marti and Pedro Lazo. Ormani Romero started against the Japanese, lasting four batters and 23 pitches.
But the Cubans refused to go down quietly, despite trailing by as much as five runs, 6-1, going into the bottom of the sixth inning and 10-5 heading into the bottom of the ninth.
The Japanese committed three late errors and Frederich Cepeda hit a two-run, eighth-inning homer to pull the Cubans within one, 6-5. For a moment it looked like a thriller, but the Japanese ended the drama by batting around and scoring four runs in the top of the ninth to tie up the first Classic with a neat little ribbon, as Akinori Otsuka pitched the final 1 2/3 innings to earn the save.
For the Japanese, there was a moment of instant elation, and then a moment of recognition that the run of this particular team was already over. But that moment will last long in the heart of every Japanese baseball fan, said Oh, who may have topped his all-world leading 868 homers as a player with this single win as a manager.
"The fans have been supporting us so much," Oh said. "That's why we were able to accomplish this. So we'd like to share this great moment with all them back home, and those who were here."
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