Defending champion Japan is headed for the World Baseball Classic semifinals, leaving mighty Cuba in the kind of fog it hasn't experienced in nearly 60 years.
Japan beat Cuba 5-0 on a foggy Wednesday night at Petco Park in San Diego to clinch the final spot in the semifinals this weekend at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
While the Japanese celebrated as if it were just another win, it was a momentous result.
It was the first time since 1951 that the Cubans failed to reach the finals of a major international competition. They had made the finals 40 straight times in the IBAF World Cup, the Intercontinental Cup, the Olympics and the WBC.
"It meant a lot," Japanese manager Tatsunori Hara said. "It was a big deal for us. It will be left in history. I have great respect for Cuba."
Japan scored two unearned runs with two outs in the fourth inning when Cuban centre-fielder Yoennis Cespedes committed a two-base error on Michihiro Ogasawara's high fly ball. Even though it was hit into heavy fog and Cespedes had a long run, he seemed to see the ball and had it in his glove before it popped out, glanced off his cap and rolled to the wall.
Norichika Aoki went 4-for-5 with two RBIs and one run scored. Ichiro Suzuki went 2-for-5 to raise his WBC average to .214. He tripled in the ninth and scored on Aoki's single.
Hisashi Iwakuma and Toshiya Sugiuchi combined to five-hit the Cubans.
Baseball long has been Cuba's soul, and the WBC and Olympics are among the few major forums it has to show off the country's talent away from home.
But the Cubans are in a funk.
The WBC elimination came seven months after South Korea upset Cuba to win the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.
Three years ago at Petco Park, Japan beat Cuba 10-6 to win the inaugural WBC.
Cuban manager Higinio Velez skipped the post-game news conference but issued a statement:
"I would like to congratulate the Japanese team for their great victory tonight. They were much better than us, and that's why they deserved the victory. They do deserve to go on to the finals. So the only thing left for us to do is to continue to fight for our great game, baseball."
Japan joins South Korea, Venezuela and the United States in the semifinals. Japan will play Korea on Thursday night at Petco Park to determine the seedings from Group 1. The loser will play Venezuela on Saturday while the winner will play the United States on Sunday.
South Korea clinched its spot in the semis with a 4-1 win over Japan on Tuesday night.
Japan beat Cuba for the second time in four days and the third time in two WBCs. Boston Red Sox ace Daisuke Matsuzaka, who earned the win in the 2006 title game, dominated for six innings in a 6-0 win on Sunday.
Fog began rolling in off the Pacific Ocean well before the first pitch.
With one out in the fourth, Aoki singled and advanced to third on Atsunori Inaba's double down the right-field line. Both runners held on Shuichi Murata's fly ball to shallow centre before scoring on Cespedes' miscue.
Akinori Iwamura walked leading off the fifth and seventh innings and scored both times, on Aoki's single and then Hiroyuki Nakajima's sacrifice fly.
Iwakuma (1-1) allowed five hits in six innings. He got 15 ground-ball outs and struck out two while walking one. Sugiuchi finished with three perfect innings for the save.
"All the players felt the pressure," Hara said. "However, they all played a great game, particularly Iwakuma. He was in complete control and magnificent."
Iwakuma lowered his ERA to 0.73 in 12 1/3 innings in three WBC games, including two starts.
Cuban starter Yunieski Maya (0-1) allowed four hits and no earned runs in 3 2/3 innings.
The game drew 9,774 fans to 42,000-seat Petco Park.
Dunn's error cost Americans
United States manager Davey Johnson was right to have reservations about playing Adam Dunn at first base.
The desperation deployment backfired Wednesday night in the World Baseball Classic when Dunn made a wild throw that led to four unearned runs. As a result, Venezuela won Group 2 by beating the Americans 10-6 to conclude second-round play in Miami.
Both teams had already qualified for the semifinals this weekend in Los Angeles.
Venezuela will play the second-seeded team from Group 1 on Saturday at Dodger Stadium, and the U.S. will play in the other semifinal Sunday. The semifinalists from Group 1 in San Diego will be South Korea and the winner of Wednesday night's game between Cuba and Japan.
Team USA qualified for the semifinals for the first time by scoring three runs in the ninth inning Tuesday night to beat Puerto Rico 6-5. The Americans failed to come up with much of an encore, falling behind when Venezuela scored six runs in the second inning with the help of Dunn's error.
Johnson would prefer to play Dunn in the outfield, but with Kevin Youkilis sidelined for the rest of the WBC because of a sprained ankle, there was no better option at first base.
With runners at the corners in the second inning, Dunn charged a chopper and made a throw home that sailed three metres wide of the catcher. Before the inning ended, Henry Blanco hit a two-run double off Jeremy Guthrie (0-2), and Jose Lopez and Miguel Cabrera each doubled home a run.
Dunn made another error in the eighth.
Rain a drain
Venezuela finished with 15 hits, including a three-run homer by Max Ramirez. Team USA had 12 hits but stranded 11 runners.
The weather was as bad as the pitching. Rain delayed the start for more than an hour and fell during much of the game. The conditions did little to quiet the crowd of 16,575, with Venezuela fans again chanting, pounding drums and booing Magglio Ordonez. Many Venezuelans dislike their left-fielder because he supports the country's president, Hugo Chavez.
Ordonez turned the jeers to cheers when he singled during the second-inning rally. He finished 1-for-4, hiking his average in the tournament to .167 (4-for-24).
Guthrie lasted only 1 2-3 innings and gave up seven hits, including three doubles. He left trailing 6-1, but only two of the runs were earned.
Venezuela starter Armando Galarraga (1-0) allowed eight hits and three runs, two earned, in 3 1/3 innings.