ATHENS, Greece (AP) - Japan found its own version of Ben Sheets. Right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka shut out Cuba for eight innings Tuesday, leading Japan
to a 6-3 victory that will go down in Olympic history and his country's lore.
Just as Sheets led the United States to gold in Sydney four years ago by dominating the Cubans, Matsuzaka led his baseball-enthralled nation to new
heights in international play. The round-robin victory was a breakthrough for Japan, which sat on the sideline while Cuba and the United States won
the first three golds in Olympic play.
"We want to bring home a good souvenir from the tournament," said Norihiro Nakamura, who hit a solo home run, "and we also want to bring home a medal
for our coach, who is not here."
Japan's longtime manager Shigeo Nagashima suffered a stroke in March and did not accompany the team to Athens. He was replaced by Kiyoshi Nakahata.
Japan's major leagues sent an all-pro team to Athens for the first time, hoping to close the gap with amateur baseball's most celebrated squad. Behind
Matsuzaka, the Japanese did just that.
Their 23-year-old pitcher allowed only four hits as Japan pulled ahead 6-0 after eight innings. Ariel Pestano's two-run double with one out in the
ninth broke the shutout. It was only Cuba's third loss in four Olympics, a barometer of its world dominance at the amateur level.
Cuba (2-1) and Japan (3-0) were the two gold medal favorites heading into the eight-team tournament -- the United States didn't qualify. Their first
head-to-head matchup indicated that Cuba's "Big Red Machine" is no longer in the lead. The Cubans had their 21-game Olympic winning streak snapped by
the Netherlands in Sydney, where professional players stocked rosters for the first time. Former major leaguer Ken Brauckmiller shut down the Cubans
in a 4-2 win during round-robin play.
The Cubans seemed to be back on stride by the medal round in Sydney, knocking Japan out in the semifinals 3-0 before Sheets beat them with a
three-hitter in the title game, a 4-0 U.S. win. Matsuzaka was on the team that left Sydney disappointed. The former high school sensation more than
made up for it on Tuesday.
His claim to fame in Japan came in 1988, when he pitched 27 innings in three days to win the prestigious Koshien high school tournament. He threw a
no-hitter in the title game, even though he had thrown 17 innings two days earlier. The Seibu Lions pitcher was the Rookie of the Year when he turned
pro. This season, he is 8-6 with four shutouts in the Japan League.
He gave up only four hits and one walk through eight innings, before fading in the ninth.
"He wanted to throw until the end," said Nakahata. Left-hander Hirotoshi Ishii finished a combined seven-hitter.
Cuba's hopes weren't severely damaged by the loss.
"What is important for us is to reach the semifinals. Once we get there, we can go after the medal," said manager Higinio Velez.
Matsuzaka's only fright came in the fourth, when he was hit on his pitching arm above the elbow by a line drive. He went to the dugout for a few
minutes, then returned and escaped a threat. Japan's offense provided plenty of support. Kazuhiro Wada hit a two-run homer in the second inning off
Vicyohandri Odelin. Kenji Jojima and Nakamura added solo shots in the top of the fourth, leaving it up to Matsuzaka to do the rest.