SAN DIEGO – The veteran catcher slammed the baseball to the dirt, the final act in a sequence he might have known had beaten his Cuban national team.
He'd prodded three of his pitchers in the third inning alone. He'd begged for strikes from the prodigy left-hander who could throw 100 mph but too often missed the mitt, and turned out he'd put the ball right on their bats. He'd asked another lefty to settle that third-inning crisis, and two more runs scored. And finally he'd gotten a strikeout, the third out played against the clamor of Japanese throats and hearts echoing Sunday afternoon in a half-filled Petco Park.
Yes, he'd held that baseball for an extra moment, considered rolling it to the mound, and instead allowed himself an act of frustration, unusual for the seemingly dauntless Cuban club.
Hours later, veteran catcher Ariel Pestano, employee No. 8, would leave the ballpark in a line of his countrymen. He would not – could not, actually – stop to answer questions. But he had to have known this slow, brooding walk to the bus was waiting, and that Cuba would return in a little more than a day to play for its WBC life.
See, he'd been in these games against Daisuke Matsuzaka before. He'd been around long enough to lose to a 23-year-old Matsuzaka in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. And three years ago, a 25-year-old Matsuzaka was the winning pitcher in the WBC final on this very mound.
While Pestano tugged at and prodded the young starter Aroldis Chapman, who appeared nearly as quick to temper as he was to the plate, the game came to rest on Matsuzaka's resilient right arm. Dice-K was the MVP of this tournament in 2006. He'd gone off a year later to the Boston Red Sox, and in two seasons has won 33 major-league games. And now he is 5-0 in the WBC, the latest win coming after being staked to a 3-0 lead in the third inning against the Cubans. Japan won, 6-0, going away.
If that sounds simple, it actually was. Matsuzaka allowed five singles in six innings. He had eight strikeouts, the last on his 86th pitch, a slider that beat Cuban cleanup hitter Yosvani Peraza and brought his teammates to the top step of their dugout.
Unlike the man who wears the Red Sox uniform and can at times appear bat shy, Matsuzaka pitched fearlessly to the strike zone against the aggressive Cuban lineup. And while Cuban pitching coach Pedro Perez wore a path to the mound to tend to Japan's frequent rallies, Matsuzaka, familiarly composed, pressed through the middle innings on the ends and handles of Cuba's bats. And when those burly bats hesitated, Matsuzaka answered with a tailing fastball or a precision curveball; half of Cuba's strikeouts were looking.
“We faced a wonderful pitcher today,” Cuba manager Higinio Velez said.
Asked to assure the Cuban people, Velez answered, “Stay calm. We are going to come back tomorrow with our all. Nobody will win this Classic without any lost games. … Our fans need to stay calm and trust in us.”
They won't likely run into anyone as polished as Matsuzaka again. Unless, of course, they run into Matsuzaka again.
While the baseball world might have expected the game of the tournament, perhaps only Matsuzaka delivered. This was to be an afternoon played on the broad strokes of nationalism, and settled on the narrow ledge of a simple baseball grudge. Japanese players were so eager they twice were picked off first base in the second inning, both times after drawing walks against Chapman. They dropped two pop flies.
Cuban players swung from their heels, seemingly intent on muscling their way to Los Angeles and another trip to the finals. What Matsuzaka missed on, spacious Petco Park swallowed up. Three Cubans reached scoring position, only one after the third inning.
Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said later the game went better than he could have imagined. Like everyone, probably, he'd waited to be notified of the Cuban starting pitcher, and then the Cuban starting lineup. Like everyone, presumably, he'd awaited the Cuban offensive surge, which never did come. Instead, Matsuzaka, pitching three weeks before his real season would begin, was May or June sharp. Or, perhaps, this is just as real of a season for him, the international game still in his blood.
“As far as I'm concerned, well, while I was warming up, did I look so fierce?” he coyly asked. “I thought I had a smile on my face. Did I not?”
He seemed to be saying he enjoys this, standing again among his friends and former teammates. He seemed to be saying he enjoys beating the Cubans, even if only because they're the ones before him, if only because he wouldn't ever decline such an opportunity.
“Always on behalf of Japan,” he said, “I want to be the pitcher. If they ask me to pitch, I'm willing to pitch on behalf of Japan. That's all. That's all.”
So it is. And the Cubans, they'd seen it all before.