The biggest question coming into the 2013 World Baseball Classic was "How good are the Cubans?" Scouts simply don't have access to the island and most of their players have a bit of an air of mystery about them. They've lost several players to defections over the past few years and many have questioned how good the talent left in Cuba really was.
From the early returns from Fukouka, the answer is very, very good.
Behind good pitching and two tremendous home runs, Cuba defeated Japan 6-3 in the final game of the Fukuoka Pool. The game itself was relatively meaningless as both teams had already qualified for the second round and was only used to determine seeding. As a result of the win, Cuba will take on the Netherlands on Thursday night (Chicago time) and Japan will play Chinese Taipei early Friday morning.
Cuba's pitching staff kept Japan off the board for the first eight innings. Cuban starter Wilber Perez got the win after pitching the first three innings, allowing three hits and one walk while striking out three. Yander Gonzalez held Japan to only one single over 2.1 innings of relief and then in the sixth inning, Noberto Gonzalez entered the game and just dominated the Japanese lineup. Gonzalez faced eight batters and got nine outs, retiring the first batter with a double-play and then sending the next seven down in order. He struck out one
Meanwhile, Cuba took the lead in the bottom of the third inning with a tremendous solo home run by right fielder Yasmany Tomas off of Japanese starter Kenji Otonari. The ball Tomas hit landed about twenty rows back in the left-center field bleachers.
Cuba would take on another run in the fourth inning on a double by DH Frederich Cepeda. They would then extend their lead to 3-0 in the sixth inning when second baseman Jose Fernandez hit a lead-off double and first baseman Jose Abreu singled him home two batters later.
But Cuba apparently put the game out of reach in the bottom of the eighth inning when Cuban single-season home run record holder Alfredo Despaigne pounded a towering three-run home run to just left of dead center field to make it 6-0.
But the Japanese team didn't give up. After Gonzalez retired the first batter of the ninth, he was pulled from the game for pitch count considerations. Raciel Iglesias faced two Japanese batters and walked them both before getting pulled for Darien Nunez, who walked the bases loaded with the only batter he faced.
New Cuban pitcher Vladimir Garcia gave up a bases-loaded single to center fielder Hishayoshi Chono to score Japan's first run. He retired the next batter on a sacrifice fly and then DH Hirokazu Ibata singled home another run. That made the score 6-3 and brought catcher Ryoji Aikawa to the plate as the tying run. But Garcia struck out Aikawa to end the game.
Kenju Otonari took the loss for Japan. He gave up one run on the Tomas home run and two hits total. Otonari didn't walk anyone and struck out one.
Fernandez, Despaigne and Abreu all had two hits for Cuba. Ibata and left fielder Sho Nakata each had two hits for Japan. One of the biggest differences between the two teams is that all seven hits for Japan were singles and Cuba had two doubles and two home runs among their ten hits.
If you've been wanting to see some WBC games but aren't willing to stay up late or get up early, you'll now get your chance as the Puerto Rico and Arizona pools start tomorrow. Italy will take on Mexico at 2 pm central tomorrow and in what should be a great game, Venezuela will play the Dominican Republic at 5:30 central. Then at 9 pm central, play starts in Tokyo as Cuba plays the Netherlands, All games are televised on the MLB Network.