Dice-K, Japan own Cuba in Classic play

Dice-K, Japan too strong for Cuba

SAN DIEGO -- Lightning struck twice in the same ballpark for the Japanese on Sunday.

Just like three years ago when Japan defeated the Cubans here to win the inaugural World Baseball Classic title, the Japanese defeated the islanders at PETCO Park, this time 6-0.

Once again, Japan jumped out to a big early lead and rode the strong right arm of Daisuke Matsuzaka on to victory.

"Well, against Cuba, I just thought about the [2006] finals, [pitching] like last time," said Matsuzaka, a member of the Seibu Lions then and the Red Sox now. "That's how I wanted to pitch today. It worked for me."

It worked for the Japanese, too. In this double-elimination format, they are one win away from ascending to the semifinals again, this time at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles next weekend. They'll play Korea on Tuesday night here at 11 p.m. ET as the second round continues.

Cuba, meanwhile, which has been to the finals in its last 40 international tournaments, will try to stave off elimination on Monday, also at 11 p.m., against Mexico.

Both teams are now 3-1 in this year's tournament. The Cubans, who swept through the first round without a loss, tried to take the first glitch in stride.

"Stay calm," Cuban manager Higinio Velez told fans of Cuba baseball. "We are going to come back tomorrow with our all. Nobody will win this Classic without losing any games."

In the 2006 finals, the 5-3 Japanese vanquished the Cubans, 10-6, with Matsuzaka pitching the first four innings, allowing one run on four hits with five strikeouts. That night, Japan handed Matsuzaka a 4-0 lead before he took the mound in the bottom of the first.

Less than a year later, the Red Sox paid the Lions a $51.1 million posting fee and signed the right-hander to a six-year, $52 million contract.

On Sunday, as the Japanese played small ball in the wide PETCO environs to jump out to a 3-0 lead with three runs in the top of the third, Matsuzaka was even better and proved virtually unreachable. He allowed five hits -- all singles -- whiffed eight and walked none in his six innings of work.

Dice-K threw an economical 86 pitches -- one over the second-round limit for a starter -- 61 for strikes.

The free-swinging Cubans whiffed 12 times in the game against four Japanese pitchers and didn't collect an extra-base hit until Frederich Cepeda doubled to lead off the ninth. He was still standing on second as the game ended.

"Well, yesterday, within myself, I was thinking about Cuba," Japanese manager Tatsunori Hara said. "I was thinking of outcomes and situations, but what happened today was better than that."

The tournament MVP three years ago when he went 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA, Matsuzaka has added two more victories in this Classic, bringing his overall two-tournament record to 5-0 with a 1.57 ERA. He was the winner this year in Japan's opening-round second game at Tokyo Dome, defeating Korea, 14-2.

Matsuzaka also mastered the Cubans during pool play in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, pitching 8 1/3 innings of a 6-3 Japan win. That day, he allowed three earned runs on seven hits, walking one and striking out seven.

"I know Cuba is a good team, but particularly there was nothing I was too worried about," Matsuzaka said. "I knew that if I just concentrated, I'd have no problem."

Indeed. He's the only man in baseball history to own this trifecta: a part of the 2006 World Classic title, the 2006 Classic MVP trophy and a World Series ring with the 2007 Red Sox.

Against the highly rated Cubans in international play, Matsuzaka is now 3-0 with a 1.96 ERA in three starts.

In his two years pitching for the Red Sox, he's 33-15, following an eight-year career with the Lions in which he finished 108-60. He's also 3-1 for Boston in seven postseason starts, including a Game 3 victory over the Rockies in the 2007 World Series.

Matsuzaka is still a favorite of Japanese baseball fans everywhere and certainly, at 28, an accomplished big-game pitcher.

"Matsuzaka is a well-known pitcher who has competed in many different international events, the Olympics, as well as the World Series," Velez said." We faced a wonderful pitcher today, and we did not face an unknown at all. It's a pitcher that we respect quite a bit."

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