Japan's Matsuzaka a deserving MVP

Japan's Matsuzaka a deserving MVP

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SAN DIEGO -- The confidence manager Sadaharu Oh showed in right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka paid huge dividends Monday night for everyone connected with Team Japan.

Matsuzaka pitched so well against Cuba in the World Baseball Classic championship game at PETCO Park that he captured the Most Valuable Player award and the accompanying trophy.

No surprise there as Matsuzaka had a 3-0 record and 1.38 ERA during the three-week tournament.

But it came as a little bit of a surprise to the right-hander when he was told two days earlier that he would start the Classic's championship game.

"I knew by rule that [Shunsuke] Watanabe was available, but when [Oh] selected me as the starting pitcher, that really fired me up," he said.

The adrenaline flowed so freely that Matsuka threw more heat than even Oh anticipated.

"He was throwing his pitches harder than ever in first four innings," Oh said after the 10-6 victory over Cuba. "That was something I haven't really seen in the past."

The extra effort Matsuzaka put into the game led to an earlier than expected departure. There is a 95-pitch limit in the final round of the tournament, but the starter threw just 62 pitches -- 43 for strikes.

When the bottom of the fifth inning started, Watanabe was on the mound, not Matsuzaka.

"As I saw him at that time, at the pitching change time, I really thought it would be better if I sent another pitcher in," Oh explained. "Of course, he might have pitched a little more, he might have been able to pitch some more, but today that was my decision to take him out at that moment and switch him with the other pitcher."

Cooperstown Bound
A host of items celebrating the first World Baseball Classic, won by Japan, will now enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Role in finals
SpikesWorn by manager Sadaharu Oh
Team Japan jerseyWorn by MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka
Baseball capWorn by slugger Nobuhiko Matsunaka
Batting helmetWorn by Ichiro Suzuki
Warm-up jacketWorn by pitcher Koji Uehara
Japan led, 6-1, at the time and there was some heavy-duty second-guessing when Cuba stormed back and erased all but one run of Japan's seemingly safe lead.

"I never thought about a pitch count or anything," Matsuzaka said, "so from the beginning, I was throwing the hardest pitches possible. This was the first time for me to face the Cuba team since the Athens Olympics (in 2004), but they always have these intimidating hitters."

Matsuzaka said fear of the Cuba lineup never entered his mind and his game plan was to challenge the fastball-hitting team with fastballs.

"I heard they are really good fastball hitters and my good pitch is also a fastball," he said. "So I really wanted to try my fastball against those good hitters and really didn't care about the location. I wanted to overpower the Cuban hitters."

Mission accomplished. He struck out five and didn't walk anyone. The only glitch on his pitching line was a solo home run surrendered to Eduardo Paret leading off the bottom of the first inning.

Matsuzaka got even in the third, striking out the Cuban shortstop.

Cuba manager Higinio Velez put the credit where it belonged.

"All those who are well-acquainted with baseball, and who have followed this closely and know a lot about baseball, know that when you have a good pitcher, a top quality pitcher as you did with Japan, it is very difficult to hit, very difficult to bat," he said.

With the Classic now in the history books, and his uniform on its way to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Matsuzaka had a chance to reflect on the past month or so.

"To me the Olympic games were the only opportunities to decide the world's No. 1 baseball team in the past, and actually I participated in two Olympics, but both times the team I participated in finished short of earning the gold medal," he said.

"This time I heard about this plan of World Baseball Classic, and I looked at the list of the players, and I thought at that moment I was probably most excited in my career that I might have a chance to play on the best team ever.

"We all aimed at winning the championship here, and in the last game, with the world championship on the line, I was named as a starter of the game, and I'm really proud of the fact that I was able to start and I also did a decent job to contribute to the win. So I'm really satisfied with that."

"At the time of winning the championship, like Ichiro said, this will be the end of this great journey with these great teammates, and I've experienced this sadness in the past with the Olympic teams, but still, I feel really hard that we have to part from each other.

"Throughout this tournament, all the teammates became real good friends and good buddies."

Good friends, good buddies and champions of the World.

Jim Street is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.