Cinderella Cuba Meets Japan in WBC Finals
After upsetting the Dominican Republic 3-1 on Saturday before over 41,000 fans in San Diego, Cuba is one game away from defying all predictions and winning the first World Baseball Classic.
When the tournament -- organized by US Major League Baseball—began, the United States and the Dominicans were the big favorites to win with Venezuela and Puerto Rico considered the closest challengers with a chance. Both Japan and Cuba were given little more than a prayer.
Now those two teams will meet in the one-game finals set for 6:00 p.m. California time on Monday.
Japan got its place in the finals by never giving up and beating South Korea 6-0 in the third but decisive match-up between the two Asian rivals on Saturday evening. A two-run homer by pinch-hitter Kosuke Fukidome broke a scoreless tie in the seventh inning and Hitoshi Tamura opened the eighth with a solo shot. Koji Uehara was the winning pitcher throwing seven scoreless innings.
Before both games, the eventual losers looked extremely difficult to beat. The Dominicans had already topped Cuba 7-3 in Round 2 and announced last year’s American League Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon as their starting pitcher. Korea, at 6-0, was the only undefeated WBC competitor with an incredible team ERA of just over one run per game.
In the Caribbean rematch, Colon was impossible to score on during six innings but so was Cuba’s Yadel Marti who stymied the all-star Dominican lineup on his breaking pitches into the fifth with only 3 hits, before giving way to reliever Pedro Luis Lazo.
Lazo accomplished exactly what he did against Venezuela six days earlier, leaving some of the major league’s top hitters talking to themselves. The stocky, towering right-hander held the Dominicans to five singles and struck out two including the game winning out.
The Dominicans had a moment of glory when they went ahead 1-0 on throwing error by Cuba’s star second baseman Yulieski Gourriel in the bottom of the sixth. But the lead didn’t last long, with Cuba’s offense coming through as they have done throughout the tournament.
Manager Manny Acta turned to his relievers to hold back the Cubans, but the Dominicans literally saw stars in an explosive 4-hit, three-run seventh inning.
Down 1-0, three Cuban players drove in the runs that would prove the difference and end the scoring. Frederich Cepeda got one RBI on a grounder to second; Osmani Urrutia hit the first pitch to center for a hit that drove in another; and Alexei Ramirez laced a sacrifice fly that provided the insurance run.
The Dominican Republic did mount a threat in the eighth with two runners on with one out, but Lazo, 34, shut them down, getting home run hitter David Ortiz to fly to right and Adrian Beltre on a liner to Cepeda in left.
THE HARDER THEY COME THE HARDER THE FALL
Before Saturdays’ game, Dominican general manager Stan Javier told AP: “I don’t think we have to prove anything… I think we have the best players in the world if you check the numbers.”
The Puerto Ricans and Venezuelans could have said the same thing before facing Cuba but the island’s players and manager Higinio Velez had no intention of following the script.
“It all depends on the pitching, that is the key to Cuba, US baseball writer Peter Bjarkman told Prensa Latina before Saturday’s game. The sports expert who has visited Cuba on dozens of occasions added that Cuba has all the tools to pull off “one of the greatest surprises in history.”
The first time the two teams met on Sunday, March 12, Cuba pounded out 9 hits to the Dominicans 8, but two costly fielding errors allowed three unearned runs to score and wild pitching took care of the rest. For its part, Cuba blew several scoring opportunities including a bases loaded chance in the ninth.
But when the rematch came, those like Bjarkman, who know Cuban baseball, were aware that Cuba doesn’t lose twice to the same team.
FROM SILENCE TO PANDEMONIUM
By 4:00 p.m. Saturday afternoon, the streets of Havana and all of Cuba were deserted as the semifinal game with the Dominican Republic got underway. By 7:30 p.m. it was pandemonium. Huge roars rose up from bars, houses and apartment buildings. Blaring horns and conga drums blended with Cuban flags when the final out came.
There was almost nobody on the island that didn’t see the game, although it was not recommended for heart patients.
“There’s no excuses. We lost just like Team USA, like Canada,” Dominican pitcher Miguel Batista told the Toronto Sun.
The Dominicans all-star first baseman Albert Pujols told a Major League Baseball writer, Lazo “made some good pitches and threw a good slider on me, and he just came right at us.”
“There is no more talking, no more excuses. They played good baseball and beat us,” said Pujols.
Cuba’s designated hitter Yoandry Garlobo, who hit .524 in the Classic, his first international event, said: “We are all amateur players in Cuba, we don’t have anybody [on our team] playing outside of the country. Therefore, playing against the Major League Baseball players is the greatest victory for us.”
Garlobo, who went 3-for-4 on Saturday, commented on Cuba’s errors, “Obviously we were nervous but at the end, along the way, we got settled and tried to play better.”
“It was a wonderful show, what you saw on the field today,” said 26-year-old Yadel Marti. “This is a Cuban sport being played at its best.”
Marti, who pitched 12.2 scoreless innings in four WBC appearances, added, “We want to express our gratitude to the Dominican Republic for a wonderful game which was played here today. We made it to the semifinals, now we go on to the finals and we truly have to give it our best.”
Experts say pitching is 70 percent of the game and Dominican manger Manny Acta told MLB: “I can see why Cuba dominated the international competition. Their pitching is legit. They can throw guys out there every single day that can pitch in the big leagues. Their pitching is legit, and that’s why they beat us.”
Pedro Luis Lazo, the man that hogtied the Dominican stars in the later innings, told the press: “For all of us, it has been a matter of great pride to play against teams of this caliber. They are very good teams even though they’re not in the finals.”
As usual, Cuban manager Higinio Velez was also a gracious winner heaping praise on the Dominicans. When asked at the press conference about the finals, which would be against either Japan or South Korea, he predicted: “It will be a wonderful game. We know the Asians and how they play. They’re great players. They put everything onto the field, great effort, very similar to Latin American players.”
HELP ALONG THE WAY FOR KATRINA VICTIMS
The World Baseball Classic has proven a big success for baseball fans around the globe. Just two months ago it had appeared the tournament would not even get off the ground due to the Bush administration’s attempt to ban Cuba, the tournament’s “mystery’ team, from playing.
After protests from Major League Baseball, the International Baseball Federation and the Puerto Rican Baseball Federation, the US government finally backed down and made an exception to its prohibition on educational, scientific, sports and cultural exchange with Cuba, paving the way for Play Ball.
To help the US find a loophole to its own blockade, Cuba offered to give all of the proceeds it earned to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Now, on Monday, when Cuba and Japan take the field at Petco Park in San Diego, there may be tens of thousands of underprivileged US citizens rooting for the Caribbean team. The Cuban prize money will be distributed by Major League Baseball as the agreed upon intermediary. The winner gets 10 percent of all net profits while the runner-up gets 7 percent.
Cuba could have used the funds to further develop its sports and recreation programs at home or in the dozens of other developing countries where it has sports trainers. Likewise, it could have provided even more scholarships for foreign students to its international sports college in Havana.
But then, Cuba has never played in international competitions with money on its mind. All the games are broadcast free without advertising and there is absolutely no commercial aspect to sports on the island.
While the Bush administration arrogantly refused to accept the 1,510 doctors and tons of medicines that Cuba offered to send to help out after the devastation from Hurricane Wilma in the Gulf States, this time the victims will get a chance to feel the Cuban solidarity with their cause, and baseball fans a chance to see a team with a lot of heart.