Few Surprises from the Land of the Rising Sun – But Plenty of Fireworks

Tokyo (March 8, 2017)

Cuba’s one-sided opening night setback at the hands of host Japan by a convincing 11-6 count followed a widely expected scenario. There were no surprises here despite a heavy dose of disappointment in the Cuban camp. Few if any anticipated that a one-time world class yet now defection-depleted Cuban squad could hope to compete on equal footing with a Japanese all-star nine, especially given the impressive depth and polished skills of Nippon’s celebrated pitching talent headlined by Tuesday starter Ayumu Ishikawa of the Lotte Marines. Truth be told, the lid-lifter contest was not as close as the final scoreboard count might seem to indicate. Despite staying in the game through the opening portions (deadlocked after three frames and trailing by only a single run after four) – before a five-run Japan uprising in the fifth squelched all remaining optimism – the Cubans nonetheless somewhat miraculously dodged a handful of bullets that might well have put the game on ice for the hosts well before the midpoint. 

With one run successfully plated in the home first, Japan’s Samurai team threatened to send shaky starter Noelvis Entenza to a premature shower with two additional baserunners before Roel Santos provided the initial miracle with a circus leaping grab in deepest center field of a blast by shortstop Hayato Sakamoto. Santos reprised his initial heroics with a repeat defensive gem to close out the fourth – again with two aboard – this time with a sliding grab in deepest left-center of a sinking liner off the bat of Norichika Aoki. Early in that same inning the Cubans had received still another break when Tetsuto Yamada’s apparent two-run homer barely clearing the left-field barrier was transferred to a one-run ground-rule double after an umpire review of obvious fan interference. But Cuba could not take full advantage of that trio of early gifts, despite climbing back into a tie in the top of the third thanks to an inning-opening double from Yoelkis Céspedes and an eventual sacrifice fly provided by shortstop Alexander Ayala. A total pitching meltdown in the home fifth (highlighted by Nobuhiro Matsuda’s three-run round-tripper off José García) would then open the flood gates for the opportunistic Japanese. Matsuda was Nippon’s offensive hero on the night with four safeties, a trio of runs scored, and four more tallies knocked home.

The Cuban offense would finally awaken in the late going with three scores in the seventh and a pair more in the eighth off relievers Norimoto and Hirano, the key blows being a solo homer by Alfredo Despaigne, a pinch-hit two-run single from Guillermo Aviles, and a two-run double by Yurisbel Gracial. But the sudden show of comeback Cuban slugging did little to trim the deficit since a woefully ineffective relief duo of Jonder Martínez and Alain Sánchez gave back a pair of tallies in the home seventh and again in the eighth. Jonder yielded a two-run blast to Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh and Sánchez was touched up for a couple more though only one was earned. The Cubans did enjoy a too-little and too-late last gasp in the ninth when closer Kazuhisa Makita struck out Alfredo Despaigne looking with the bases jammed and a golden chance available to severely cut the looming deficit. 

Press Conference

If there was a bright side for the Cuban forces it had to be the late offensive surges against several quality Japanese hurlers who might not yet be in mid-season form but nonetheless represent some of the best arms to be found anywhere in the sixteen-team tournament field. The negatives started with some inconsistent defense (a cardinal sin against disciplined Japanese clubs) in the form for a pair of unsightly boots by Gracial at third (one contributing to the five-run fifth-inning onslaught) and still another miscue by Aviles in right field (an errant throw which allowed Matsuda to take an extra base and eventually set up a final Nippon tally). 

But the real Achilles Heel for Cuba was the inconsistent and at times lackluster pitching from both starter Entenza and his five bullpen replacements. All six Cuban hurlers were touched for both hits and runs and although Matanzas southpaw Yoanni Yera was tagged with the official loss none were either effective or impressive by any measure. Manager Carlos Martí and his staff obviously gambled by starting Entenza and reserving Vladimir Baños and Lázaro Blanco for the upcoming must-win games with China and Australia. It may eventually prove a gamble well worth the taking, although it was questioned by some among the Cuban media during manager Martí’s post-game press conference. Unfortunately Entenza struggled rather obviously in his starting role and as a consequence Cuba found itself playing from behind from the very outset. Middle relief failed to fill the gap and could never shut the door against a relentless Japanese offense based on a delicate balance of power and speed. Only Jonder Martínez eventually displayed a few moments of stability before surrendering the Tsutsugoh long-ball clout. Jonder provided two of only three strikeouts authored by Cuban hurlers on the night.

Cuba’s bounce-back victory over China on Wednesday afternoon also followed the anticipated script. Admittedly facing a less-intimidating brand of pitching (although Chinese starter Bruce Chen is a former big leaguer) the Cuban offense as a unit remained in high gear, creating base runners in all eight trips to the plate. Due to early squandered opportunities, the breakthrough on the scoreboard didn’t come until the fourth, but when the opening tallies arrived they came in the form of a small explosion. Roel Santos was the day’s top offensive star (three-for-five with a pair of extra-base raps) and his timely two-run triple launched the fourth-inning attack. That smash came on the heels of a Yoelkis Céspedes blast off the right-field fence that was held to a loud single but drove home Carlos Benitez with the vital initial run that broke the scoring ice.

Other hefty bats were swung by Alexander Ayala and Yurisbel García who both joined Santos as members of the afternoon’s three-hit club. Ayala’s three-for-four performance featured a pair of doubles and an RBI. Gracial continued his torrid pace (he was also two-for-four with a pair of doubles in the opener) with his third tournament two-bagger and a pair of timely singles. Frank Camilo Morejón drove home the final tally with a seventh-inning double, and in his first Classic plate appearance in an eighth-inning pinch-hitting role Victor Victor Mesa (on hand mainly as a late-inning defensive replacement) chipped in with the island club’s sixth double on the afternoon. Cuba’s 14 safeties added to the 11 versus Japan raised the club’s two-game batting mark to a hefty .352, only a shade behind the free-swinging Japanese.

In a total reversal of form over the previous evening, this time around it was the Cuban hurling from both starter Vladimir Baños and a trio of equally effective bullpen reinforcements that stood at center stage. Baños, the veteran 34-year-old Pinar right-hander, answered the call in the must-win match and was virtually flawless. Displaying superb control Baños faced only one over the minimum, striking out four. The only mar on absolute perfection was a harmless single by Shunyi Yang with one out in the home fifth. Vladimir García (2 frames with a lone walk and a pair of strikeouts), Liván Moinelo (one inning in which he issued a free pass but struck out the side), and Miguel Lahera (a one-two-three ninth) were just as dominant and as a result China could muster only five baserunners on the entire afternoon (the fifth coming via an infield boot by shortstop Ayala). China’s inexperienced lineup boasts a distinct absence of power yet features speed facilitating a well-trained tactical hit-and-run style game. But the opportunity to execute such tactics never presented itself. American-import Chinese manager John McLaren (a former big league skipper with the Seattle Mariners) noted in the post-game press session that his team, handicapped by slim in-game experience, repeatedly fell prey to the clever Cuban mound staff that continued to throw breaking balls during fastball counts (a strategy known as “pitching backwards” in insider baseball parlance).

Now everything comes down – again just as anticipated from the outset – to the winner-take-all showdown with a hungry Australian club on Friday afternoon. These teams have provided some notable clashes over the years. The most memorable certainly was the first-round WBC shootout in Mexico won by the islanders on a dramatic late-inning pinch-hit homer off the bat of Yosvani Peraza in a game started by current big-league flame-throwing “defector” Aroldis Chapman. There was also a memorable nail biter later that same year in Italy, during the final round of the IBAF World Cup, won on the strength of an early Despaigne round-tripper and most memorable perhaps for an unorthodox stalling maneuver by Aussie skipper Jon Deeble, who attempted to “ice” Cuban reliever Pedro Luis Lazo by removing his club from the field under the excuse of faulty outfield lighting. Further back still was a most dramatic Beijing Olympics Gold Medal showdown that turned on Carlos Tabares’s game-saving if debatable ninth-inning catch – a long fly that television replay would suggest might well have been a trapped ball pinned against the center-field wall. The most recent encounter was a one-sided 14-0 Cuba rout opening the 2011 (and final) IBAF World Cup in Panama.

A handful of this year’s Australian lineup regulars among position players are holdovers from as far back as the 2006 Mexico WBC opening round. By contrast Cuba’s personnel has turned over drastically in recent years, the result of wholesale defections that have stripped the Cuban circuit of prime talent to the tune of more than 150 players lost in the past three calendar years. And tomorrow’s rematch not only carries such historic baggage but is also laced with sufficient immediate backstory. Both ball clubs now have much to motivate them since Australia has never made it out of the tournament’s first round across three previous tries, and the Cubans for their own part are now seeking to avoid an embarrassing first-ever opening-round ouster from baseball’s top international showcase.

 

Peter Bjarkman has been covering BaseballdeCuba.com for 10 years with his columns and on-the-scene reports. Peter is a senior writer and author of the popular MLB blog, "Bjarkman's Latino and Cuban League Baseball History Page." Bjarkman is a winner of THE SPORTING NEWS-SABR Baseball Research Award, and a finalist for SPITBALL magazine's CASEY AWARD (for "Baseball Book of the Year"). His 1994 study, BASEBALL WITH A LATIN BEAT: A HISTORY OF THE LATIN AMERICAN GAME (McFarland), earned the Macmillan-SABR Baseball Research Award, also this year Peter won the Henry Chadwick Award for his contributions to baseball. Bjarkman's A HISTORY OF CUBAN BASEBALL, 1864-2006 is considered the seminal book on the Cuban national pastime. Peter will be covering the 2017 World Baseball Classic for BaseballdeCuba.com directly from Japan.