SAN DIEGO – The team from Japan would play on in the World Baseball Classic. It would get another shot at the now very familiar Korean team, then run up to Los Angeles for a weekend game or two. On a fog-dampened field late Wednesday night, Japanese players met near the mound, so pleased to have extended their stay here.
A couple dozen steps away, members of the Cuban national team hung glumly over the dugout rail. Maybe they knew it, maybe they didn't, but after a few more hours of unusually imprecise baseball, after their 5-0 loss to Japan, they had become the first Cubans in five decades to be eliminated from a major tournament before the final game.
Their fathers, perhaps, would not be able to recall such a defeat, and certainly not two so closely situated. Twice in four days Cuba had been shut out by the Japanese, and in the early morning hours Thursday, they carried their disappointment through the tunnels beneath Petco Park, through the loading dock and onto one of two buses that idled at a curb.
They lugged their own duffel bags. Aroldis Chapman, who is among the youngest of them and was the losing pitcher Sunday afternoon, dragged a couple dozen bats in a bag as well.
A few made eye contact and nodded their heads to say farewell.
Pedro Lazo, the hulking pitcher with the big smile and bigger belly, earlier had emerged from the home clubhouse. He stood for a moment, then appeared to start down the hallway. A security guard who spoke no Spanish raised his hand.
"Uh, sir? Sir?" he said. "Are you, um, You can't leave."
Lazo laughed at the guard, then approaching panicky.
"No, it's OK," he said in Spanish. "I'm staying here in the U.S."
On his way through the clubhouse doors, he laughed again. Maybe he'd share the story with his teammates, who probably could have used a laugh themselves.
Over two second-round games that surrounded their easy win against Mexico, the vaunted Cuban offense had been stymied by Japan, notably Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hisashi Iwakuma. For that reason, Japan and Korea will play for the fourth time in the tournament, this time, however, for only seeding purposes. And national pride. And personal dignity. And to see if the Koreans have any more of those flags they keep raising on American mounds (and poking into the souls of Japan's best ballplayers).
The loser plays Venezuela on Saturday at Dodger Stadium.
The winner plays Team USA on Sunday.
"It was," Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said, "a very special game."
The Cubans – the defending WBC runners-up – came to WBC II and San Diego with the thick hardball pedigree and the healthy arrogance that accompanies it, and now they are gone.
For the typical baseball fan, the Cubans will disappear for another three years, until Bud has them back for another go at this. While the teams from Korea, Japan, Venezuela and the U.S. made their ways to L.A., the mysterious club from Cuba headed home.
For the first time since the 1959 Pan American Games, the national team left without a medal, or a trophy. For the first time since then, they left without really leaving a footprint. There'll be a half-century's worth of explaining to do.
While the team's field manager, Higinio Velez, had again spoken of team makeup (players over names) and major league-equivalent competence, his ballclub will be remembered not just for the worst week of Cuban baseball in two generations, but for the way it went out.
Velez sent a statement to reporters.
"Sorry," it was written, "for not being able to make it here tonight to this press conference. But I would like to thank everyone for their kindness toward the Cuban team.
"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 onto the finals. So, the only thing left for us to do is to continue to fight for our great game – baseball."
An hour later, Velez left with a duffel bag over his shoulder, almost certainly wondering what he was returning to on Cuban soil.
These Cubans had lost on the ragged end of their tempers, both on the mound and in their dugout.
They lost on a dropped fly ball.
They lost because three days after striking out four times looking against Matsuzaka, their adjustment apparently was to swing early and often against sinkerballer Iwakuma, bringing the predictable ground balls.
They lost because, ultimately, it did not matter who pitched for Japan. They could not score a run.
With Korea ahead, and all that means for him and Japan, Hara took one final look at what had transpired. His ballclub had singlehandedly knocked the Cubans from this tournament, a historical achievement.
"It meant a lot," Hara said. "It was a big deal for us."