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JAPAN 10, CUBA 6

Japan on top of world with Classic win

SAN DIEGO -- While half of America slept, and the other half blissfully ignored the event, Japan defeated Cuba, 10-6, in the title game of the inaugural World Baseball Classic at Petco Park last night/this morning. The game ended at 12:57 a.m. EST.

Japan roughed up a beleaguered Cuban pitching staff and took a 6-1 lead into the sixth before Cuba rallied with two in the sixth, another pair in the eighth on a two-run blast by Frederich Cepeda, and a run in the ninth. But the Japanese put it away with four in the ninth, and the Texas Rangers' Akinori Otsuka came on after the homer and got the final five outs.

Japan would have been sent home after the second round if not for America's embarrassing loss to Mexico last Thursday. Team USA's stunning departure made room for Japan, which won only three of its first six games. Japan avenged its two losses to rival Korea with a 6-0 semifinal victory Saturday, and last night Sadaharu Oh's team finished the job against the sons of Fidel Castro.

Masters of international play, participating in their 37th consecutive championship round (dating back to 1951), the Cuban pitching staff appeared sapped early. Cuba used its top two hurlers in Saturday's 3-1 defeat of the major league-laden Dominican team and had little left for the finale. Cuban skipper Higinio Velez used three pitchers in Japan's four-run first inning, eight on the night.

Japan scored four times despite hitting only one ball out of the infield. After two infield singles and a walk, Cuban starter Ormani Romero was pulled by Velez. He retired only one batter. Vichoandry Odelin came on and hit Hitoshi Tamura with a 2-1 pitch, forcing home Japan's first run.

Odelin walked Michihiro Ogasawara to force home a second run. Then Toshiaki Imae cracked a single to center and it was 4-0.

After the two-run single, Velez came back to the hill and pulled Odelin in favor of lefty Norberto Gonzalez.

Cuban shortstop Eduardo Paret led off the bottom of the first with heat-seeking homer to left, but Japan's Daisuke Matsuzaka settled down after that and fanned five Cubans in the first three innings. He left after four, still leading, 4-1.

''It was my first experience to pitch in the game with the world championship on the line," said Matsuzaka, who was named tournament MVP. ''We take pride in our baseball and we wanted to show our baseball was at the top level."

Japan scored two more in the fifth to take a 6-1 lead. Ichiro got things going with a hard double down the left field line. He advanced to third on a single that knocked Gonzalez from the mound. Yadier Pedroso was next and Tamura scored Ichiro with a hard single that was miraculously backhanded by third baseman Michel Enriquez. After the runners were sacrificed to third and second, Adiel Palma came on to pitch. He surrendered a sacrifice fly to Ogasawara and the Cubans were down by five.

The Cubans rallied for a pair against submarine reliever Shunsuke Wantanabe in the bottom of the sixth. Things got interesting two innings later when Cepeda crushed his two-run homer off Soichi Fujita.

Ichiro rode to the rescue in the top of the ninth, delivering an RBI single to right for an insurance run, then pinch hitter Kosuke Fukudome broke it open with a two-run single to make it 9-5.

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