Japan manager Hiroki Kokubu was concerned his team would feel nervous in Tuesday night's World Baseball Classic opener.
The nerves may have showed, as Japan fought off three late Cuban rallies in an 11-6 win that thrilled a sellout crowd at Tokyo Dome. Nobuhiro Matsuda led the way for Japan with four hits, including a three-run home run, but the Cubans scored five late runs and even left the bases loaded in the ninth inning.
"I've never felt so much pressure," said Kokubu, who was managing in the World Baseball Classic for the first time. "I didn't get calm until maybe the fifth inning."
It was in that fifth inning that Japan scored five times to take a 7-1 lead, with Matsuda's home run the biggest blow. While the Cubans came back with three seventh-inning runs, a two-run home run from Yoshitomo Tsutsugo in the bottom of the inning restored a five-run edge.
The team known here as Samurai Japan has reached the semifinals each of the first three times the tournament has been played, winning the championship in both 2006 and '09. The Japanese were disappointed by their semifinal loss to Puerto Rico in 2013, and Kokubu wanted a strong showing in Tuesday's opener to set his team on track to reclaim the title this year.
Cuba figured to present Japan's biggest challenge in Pool B, which also includes China and Australia. Some of the Cuban media questioned manager Carlos Marti's decision to start Noelvis Entenza against Japan, and Entenza didn't make it out of the second inning. Marti used five more pitchers and Japan scored against all five.
"Our pitching staff was not as we wanted it to be," Marti said. "As far as our offense, yes we were satisfied to score six runs off Japan's pitchers. The Japanese pitchers are solid."
While it wasn't a great night for Cuba, 19-year-old right fielder Yoelkis Cespedes made an impressive World Baseball Classic debut. Cespedes, whose older half-brother Yoenis plays for the Mets, doubled and scored Cuba's first run in the third inning, then singled in the seventh and again in the ninth.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Matsuda powers Japan: Even though he has 62 home runs over the past two seasons for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, Matsuda batted eighth in Kokubu's opening night lineup after playing poorly in Japan's pre-tournament exhibition games. It all worked out for the hosts, because Matsuda singled and scored Japan's go-ahead run in the fourth inning. His fifth-inning home run gave Japan a 6-1 lead.
"Today I was so focused, and I was very pleased with what I did," Matsuda said. More >
Yamada drives in one (but not two): Tetsuto Yamada appeared to have given Japan a 3-1 lead when his fourth-inning drive reached the seats in right field. But third-base umpire Cory Blaser quickly signalled fan interference, and replay confirmed that a fan had reached over the fence to catch the ball. Instead of a two-run home run, Yamada was credited with an RBI double. The inning ended with Japan leading 2-1, but only because Cuban center fielder Roel Santos robbed Norichika Aoki with a sliding catch in left-center field.
Despaigne feels right at home: Cuban left fielder Alfredo Despaigne got a loud ovation in the pregame introductions, because he has played in Japan for the past three seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines. Despaigne looked comfortable, and his seventh-inning home run sparked a three-run rally that gave the Cubans a chance at a comeback.
Turning defense into offense: Japan scored a first-inning run when Aoki doubled and Tsutsugo followed with a two-out single. But Tsutsugo said the rally really began in the top of the first, when a sliding stop from second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi started a double play that kept Cuba from scoring.
"Kikuchi made a great play, and then Aoki set up the great chance to score," Tsutsugo said. "I could get my hit by riding the momentum from them."
QUOTABLE "It was a bit difficult for me to get adjusted to the strike zone, and I had a few bad pitches. I struggled with the location of offspeed pitches, too. I'd like to do better next time." -- Ayumu Ishikawa, who needed 23 pitches to get through the first inning, but allowed just one run on two hits in four innings
"We'll try to win the last two games. Otherwise, we'll be eliminated, and that's not something I want." -- Marti
WHAT'S NEXT Cuba: It's a quick turnaround for the Cubans, with their game against China scheduled for 10 p.m. ET on Tuesday. Marti named right-hander Vladimir Banos his Game 2 starter. Bruce Chen, the longtime Major League left-hander, will start for China.
Japan: The hosts will be back in action Wednesday, with a 5 a.m. start against Australia. Right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano will start for Japan, with right-hander Tim Atherton on the mound for Australia.