Japan Wins World Baseball Classic

The Japanese players tossed manager Sadaharu Oh in the air, took a victory lap with a giant flag and headed into the clubhouse for a champagne celebration.

It was a party worthy of a World Series victory. And in a sense, Japan is the first true world champion.

"I'm unbelievably happy," Ichiro Suzuki said after he and his less-famous countrymen beat Cuba 10-6 in the title game of the inaugural World Baseball Classic on Monday night.

"To be honest, I never imagined we'd get there," he said. "We had a great team, the best. I hope we showed everyone what a great sport baseball is."

This wasn't the World Series. But it certainly was a legitimate world series, a 16-nation, World Cup-style tournament started by Major League Baseball.

In the end, however, only two big leaguers played in the final: Suzuki and teammate Akinori Otsuka.

The Classic's slogan is "Baseball Spoken Here." In this case, forget baseball, and beisbol, too. It's now yakyu, which in Japanese translates to "field ball." The Japanese ripped a page out of Cuba's scorebook by winning a major international tournament.

On a festive night when Cuban and Japanese fans danced to "Surf City" and Oh escorted Hank Aaron — there's 1,623 home runs between them — onto the field during the pregame ceremonies, Japan showed that baseball in March can matter.

"My players showed me a fantastic performance tonight," Oh said through a translator. "I know they're doing it for Japan."

Suzuki doubled, singled and drove in a run. He also scored three times, including in a four-run first inning that proved Cuba's pitchers are vulnerable, after all.

Cuba's fans perked up when their team, wearing its lucky red uniforms, pulled to 6-5 on a two-run homer by Frederich Cepeda with one out in the eighth. Otsuka, the former San Diego Padres reliever now with Texas, came on and retired the side.

"We tried to get back on top, but they deserve the victory because they played better," Cepeda said.

Suzuki singled in the ninth to score Munenori Kawasaki on a close play at the plate and make it 7-5. Kawasaki slid, turned and stuck his right hand just inside of catcher Ariel Pestano's left foot to — perhaps — touch the plate. Japan broke it open on a two-run single by pinch-hitter Kosuke Fukudome and a sacrifice fly by Michihiro Ogasawara.

Otsuka allowed a run in the ninth before closing it out for a save. Earlier in the day, he called former Padres teammate Trevor Hoffman for permission to have AC/DC's "Hells Bells" played when he came in from the bullpen.

After the final out, Otsuka was mobbed near the mound by his teammates. The Japanese then tossed Oh into the air twice.

"It's No. 1. It's amazing. We're champions," said tournament MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka, Japan's starting pitcher.

Two Cuban players posed with Suzuki for a photo. Commissioner Bud Selig presented the championship trophy to Japan, and Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda gave the tournament MVP award to Matsuzaka.

Once in their clubhouse, the Japanese gathered around Oh for a final word. Oh tipped his cap toward his players, who tore into the champagne.

"It's wonderful. That's the only thing I can say," Otsuka said.

Ichiro, his cap on backward, yelled to his teammates: "You have to respect the old guy. The old guy is me."

With the United States failing to make it out of the second round and the Dominican Republic losing to Cuba in the semifinals, Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners' star, was the only major leaguer in the starting lineups. Otsuka is the only other big leaguer on Japan's roster.

The Cubans consider themselves amateurs, although Miguel Tejada and Albert Pujols, who played for the Dominican Republic, said leading up to the semis that most of the Cubans could be in the majors.

But for as good as the Cubans are — they had won 22 of 24 games in international competition and have dominated the globe for decades — they cracked at the worst possible time.

"Reaching the gold medal game wasn't a gift from anyone," Cuban manager Higinio Velez said. "Cuba was even included in the toughest group, the group of death"

Japan went a disappointing 3-3 in the first two rounds and needed help in the form of Mexico's victory over Team USA to advance to San Diego on a tiebreaker.

But once Japan reached the single-elimination semifinals, it played its best ball — shutting out previously unbeaten South Korea 6-0 Saturday night before jumping ahead of Cuba.

Japan took a 4-0 lead in the top of the first while hitting the ball out of the infield just once.

Cuba starter Ormari Romero was on a short leash to begin with, but was yanked after throwing 23 pitches. He retired leadoff hitter Kawasaki, then loaded the bases on infield singles by Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Nobuhiko Matsunaka, and a walk to Suzuki.

"He wasn't his best today, he didn't have his usual velocity or his control," Velez said.

Vicyhoandry Odelin came on and hit Hitoshi Tamura on the left elbow with a pitch to force in the second run, then walked Ogasawara with two outs to bring in another before Toshiaki Imae hit a sharp, two-run single up the middle to make it 4-0.

Eduardo Paret hit a leadoff homer for the Cubans in the first, but they didn't score again until the sixth, when they made it 6-3. One of Cuba's two runs that inning was unearned due to an error by shortstop Kawasaki, who earlier in the game made two brilliant plays.

Japan took a 6-1 lead by scoring twice in the fifth on three straight hits — Suzuki's leadoff double and singles by Matsunaka and Tamura.

At first, communist Cuba was denied a permit to participate in the tournament due to decades of political animosity with the U.S. government.

And Japan kept a stiff upper lip after it appeared to be deprived of the go-ahead run in a 4-3 loss to the United States on March 12 in the opener of Round 2.

The tournament was considered a success, coming not long after baseball was booted from the Olympics effective in 2012.

Petco Park, the San Diego Padres' downtown ballpark, hasn't seen such a festive night since it opened in 2004.

Fans from both countries waved flags, blew horns and banged cowbells.

The San Diego Symphony Orchestra played the national anthems of Japan, Cuba and the United States. The Japanese players bowed after their anthem was played.

Oh, the Japanese hero who hit 868 homers, escorted Aaron to the third-base line. Aaron, whose 755 homers are the most in major league history, went to the mound by himself to throw the ceremonial first pitch to Pestano, who had Aaron autograph the ball.

After streamers were shot from the upper deck, it was time for beisbol ... and yakyu.