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Japan shuts down Cuba

March 16, 2009|Kevin Baxter

SAN DIEGO — Daisuke Matsuzaka again gave the nation of Japan reason to cheer.

But Red Sox Nation? Well, not so much.

And that's just fine with Matsuzaka, who said his country will always come before his employer.

"I want to be on behalf of Japan," he said through an interpreter after pitching his country to a 6-0 win over Cuba in a second-round Pool 1 game of the World Baseball Classic on Sunday at Petco Park. In Sunday's second game in the double-elimination pool, reigning Olympic champion South Korea met Mexico.

"If they ask me to pitch, I'm willing to pitch on behalf of Japan," Matsuzaka continued. "That's all."

But that may not sit well with the Boston Red Sox, who will pay Matsuzaka $8 million to pitch for them when the WBC is over. After all Matsuzaka, who sat out three weeks because of a rotator cuff strain last summer, threw 86 pitches in his six-inning outing Sunday. Not only is that more than any other Boston pitcher has thrown this spring, it's also more pitches than Matsuzaka threw in two of his last four Red Sox starts last season, when he failed to go six innings in half of his 32 outings.

And considering Boston has already lost second baseman and American League most valuable player Dustin Pedroia for an indefinite time because of an abdominal strain suffered in the WBC, those numbers aren't likely to please the Red Sox brass.

But at least they'll be happy to know Matsuzaka looked good doing it, throwing 61 of those pitches for strikes in continuing his mastery of Cuba, the team he beat on this same field in the inaugural WBC title game three years ago.

After giving up hits to two of the first three batters he faced, Matsuzaka scattered three singles the rest of the way, facing the minimum nine batters over the final three innings and getting seven of his last 12 outs on strikeouts.

That ran Matsuzaka's record in WBC play to 5-0 with a 1.57 earned-run average in five starts. And in three starts against Cuba, dating to the 2004 Athens Olympics, he's 3-0 with a 1.96 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 18 1/3 innings.

"We faced a wonderful pitcher today," Manager Higinio Velez said. "It's not often that this happens to us."

Well, actually, it's happening with increasing frequency as of late. Velez's team not only lost to Japan in the first WBC, but it finished second to South Korea in the Beijing Olympics and lost to the U.S. in the last World Cup, leaving once-invincible Cuba without a major international tournament victory in nearly three years.

And the Cubans won't get one here without a win in their losers' bracket game tonight.

"Nobody will win this Classic without any losses," Velez said. "We are already psychologically being prepared for tomorrow."

One Cuban who wasn't prepared Sunday was starter Aroldis Chapman, who walked three of the first six batters he faced, then gave up three runs and three hits in the third inning.

"While I was warming up, did I look so fierce?" Matsuzaka joked afterward. "I thought I had a smile on my face. I wasn't worried at all. It went just fine."

Some may beg to differ.

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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latimes.com/sports

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Baseball Classic is rolling along

Olympic champion South Korea and Mexico, which features Padres star Adrian Gonzalez, battle in a second-round late game at Petco Park in San Diego.

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