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Japan Faces Cuba in World Baseball Final Game


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

After this evening's game in San Diego, baseball will have a world champion, a winner of the World Baseball Classic. And as no American baseball fan needs telling, it won't be us. Japan and Cuba will play for the title. The Japanese team includes Ichiro and one other major leaguer, Ichiro, of course, a Major League Baseball star here.

The Cuban team is pretty much unknown to fans outside Cuba. Tom Verducci is covering the tournament for Sports Illustrated and joins us from San Diego. Welcome to the program.

Mr. TOM VERDUCCI (Writer, Sports Illustrated): Thank you.

SIEGEL: How good is this Cuban team?

Mr. VERDUCCI: They're a lot better than people thought. They had never really played against a group of major league players in a tournament like this. And they've acquitted themselves very well. They knocked out Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. All of those teams populated with major league players and very good major league players. They have impressed a lot of people. I think they've surprised a lot of people.

SIEGEL: Have we actually witnessed a visit to America by Cuban baseball players with no defections?

Mr. VERDUCCI: So far. That was obviously a concern for a lot of people in this tournament. But so far, no, all heads are accounted for at this point going into the game tonight.

SIEGEL: Which players on the Cuban team would you direct our attention to if we watched tonight?

Mr. VERDUCCI: The second baseman for the Cubans, Yulieski Goriel (ph), is a player who has impressed every team that the Cubans have played against. He's got a lightning quick bat. He's very fast and athletic. He could play in the major leagues right now. There's no question about that. And get himself a pretty darn good salary in the millions. There's no question. And also a pitcher who you won't see tonight, but who pitched very well in the tournament, Pedro Lazo (ph), 33 years old, kind of the team leader on the Cuban team.

SIEGEL: A real 33, or an Orlando Hernandez 33?

Mr. VERDUCCI: You never know with these Cuban pitchers, but he has really impressed a lot of people. One of the things in this tournament is to see their style of pitching, which is very different from the American style. The Americans base their pitching on power. Everything works off the fastball. And the Dominican Republic, like a lot of teams, was just bewildered by the assortment of breaking balls that these pitchers threw, and they kept waiting to see fastballs and what the major leaguers assume are fastball counts, and never saw them. They call that pitching backward, and they never quite got the hang of it.

SIEGEL: Okay, onto the Japanese, how good are they?

Mr. VERDUCCI: The Japanese are very good considering that a couple of their stars aren't here, Hadeki Matsui of the Yankees, Tadahiro Igucci of the Chicago White Sox, not here. But the team they have here does have Ichiro and their pitching has been spectacular. They've walked only 11 batters in the entire tournament. Pitching and defense is what's gotten it done for the Japanese, and that wins at any level.

SIEGEL: We are so used to success in baseball, in Major League Baseball being measured over a season of 162 games, and then a two-tiered league playoffs and the World Series. Does the game really lend itself to this kind of a short tournament?

Mr. VERDUCCI: Not in terms of establishing the best team. In terms of creating excitement, you can't beat it, because it does have -- it brings people back, I think, to their days in American Legion tournaments and summer ball, where you have pool play and one game eliminations. There's no pressure greater than that. Win or go home. The Dominicans were saying, O'Dallas Perez (ph), one of their pitchers said this specifically, if they played the Cubans 10 times, he feels like they would beat them nine times, things like the depths of your roster and the back end of your pitching staff would then come into play.

But for one game, the Cubans were better, and that creates tremendous excitement and urgency in all of these games.

SIEGEL: Tom Verducci, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. VERDUCCI: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated talking with us from San Diego about this evening's final game, Japan versus Cuba, in the World Baseball Classic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.