Cuba, Japan Advance to WBC Title Game

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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

SAN DIEGO, March 18 -- Two buses sat idling in the late afternoon sunshine outside a tunnel at Petco Park on Saturday. One of them quickly filled up with Cuban players, who strode toward their bus together, wearing red pullover warmups and waving to the crowd that had gathered beyond a steel barricade to cheer them on. The other bus filled up more slowly, as the Dominican players emerged from the tunnel one by one, dressed in designer clothes and sunglasses, walking silently and joylessly.

A baseball event unlike any other played out in odd juxtapositions and inscrutable scenes Saturday, as Team Cuba, the pride and joy of Fidel Castro, roared to a 3-1 victory over the Dominican Republic in the semifinals of the inaugural World Baseball Classic. On Monday night, the Cubans, the only team of amateurs in the tournament, will play Japan -- a 6-0 winner over South Korea in the other semifinal -- in the championship game of the most important international baseball event ever staged.

"This is a revolutionary team," Cuban left fielder Frederich Cepeda said after the game. "Baseball is not judged by the price of the athletes, but by the heart of the people."

That quote was translated to English-speaking reporters by a bilingual American reporter, after Francisco Campo, the official translator hired by the tournament to serve as a media liaison to the Cuban team, failed to fully translate Cepeda's answer. Another time, when an American reporter asked a question about the political ramifications of Cuba's victory, Campo failed to pose the question to the Cuban players.

Campo explained that he had been instructed not to translate politically charged questions or answers. A tournament spokesman, however, said those instructions did not come from tournament organizers.

The postgame translation episode only served to underscore the unique nature of the WBC, which brought together 16 national teams -- including a handful, such as the United States, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, whose rosters were loaded with multimillionaire major league players -- for three weeks of often inspired play.

Japan's hard-fought victory over archrival South Korea in the night game --which avenged one-run losses in each of the tournament's first two rounds -- was a perfect example.

Crisp pitching and suberb defense kept the game scoreless until the top of the seventh, when Japan pinch-hitter Kosuke Fukudome smashed a two-run homer off South Korea reliever Byung Hyun Kim, launching Japan to a five-run inning. Seattle Mariners superstar Ichiro Suzuki contributed an RBI single in the inning, as Japan silenced the sizeable pro-Korea segment of the announced crowd of 42,639.

For Kim, the outing bore an uncomfortable resemblance to his last appearance on a stage as big as this one. In the 2001 World Series, while pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Kim served up titanic home runs to New York Yankees Tino Martinez, Derek Jeter and Scott Brosius -- the first two of which lost Game 4, and the last of which blew Game 5.

Although Cuba has long dominated Asian teams in international play, in the last major meeting between the teams Japan beat Cuba, 6-3, in the 2004 Olympics. Cuba, however, rebounded to win the gold medal.

Scouts, international baseball experts and even some Cuban ex-patriots in the big leagues predicted the Cuban team -- despite having dominated international baseball for generations -- would lose early in the WBC when matched against the best talent in the world. Meantime, Castro, Cuba's polarizing dictator, predicted certain victory.

In Saturday's semifinal, Cuba merely outlasted its more renowned opponent, taking advantage of a throwing error on Dominican third baseman Adrian Beltre and surging to a three-run seventh inning against the Dominicans' bullpen. Two Cuban pitchers, right-handers Yadel Marti and Pedro Lazo, combined to hold the powerful Dominican lineup -- anchored by sluggers Albert Pujols, Miguel Tejada and David Ortiz -- to eight hits and no earned runs.

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