Cuba's Mystery Team Surprises Venezuela
Cuba came of age on Sunday afternoon when it upset Venezuela 7-2 in the World Baseball Classic, defeating one of the Major League’s best southpaws, Johan Santana, in the first game of Round Two.
“This is what we wanted to see –This is Cuban baseball,” said manager Higinio Velez, who debuted as the manager of the Cuban National team in the 1987 Pan American Games and guided the team to a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics. In Athens he was quoted as saying that being the manager of the team in the baseball-crazy nation can feel about as comfortable as sitting in an electric chair.
With nothing left to prove in amateur baseball, the Cubans had been written off by most sports commentators after they were knocked out 12-2 by Puerto Rico in the final game of Round One. But both teams had already qualified for Round Two and Velez had said before Sunday’s game: “For us, the tournament begins today.” He was proven right.
A second inning double by designated hitter Yoandry Garlobo and a two out RBI single by first baseman Ariel Borrero put Cuba ahead 1-0, a lead they would never relinquish against a team boasting a $103 million dollar payroll.
Yadel Marti, 26, combined his excellent slider, breaking and off-speed pitches with an occasional fastball to hold the Venezuelan batters hitless during the first four innings. The right-hander struck out four including power slugging clean-up hitter Manuel Cabrera twice.
When Marti gave up two singles to start the fifth, the Cuban manager called on right-hander Pedro Luis Lazo. The 34-year-old veteran got off to a bad start fumbling a bunt that loaded the bases with nobody out.
However, the towering Lazo, who had pitched poorly against Panama in Round One, then got Endy Chavez and all-star Omar Vizquel to hit flies to short left, too shallow to bring in the tying run from third. But the threat wasn’t over as Carlos Guillen stepped into the batters box with the bases still loaded. Then Lazo struck him out with a 97 MPH fastball allowing Higinio Velez to take a deep breath.
Venezuelan starter Johan Santana pitched well allowing only two hits while striking out five including Cuba’s star second baseman Yulieski Gourriel twice. But the roof caved in for the South Americans when Giovanny Carrara came in to pitch the sixth.
After giving up a run on a walk and stolen base to shortstop Eduardo Paret and an RBI single by third baseman Michel Enriquez, Carrara faced Frederich Cepeda with two on and two out. The left fielder belted a three-run homer into the right field stands and catcher Ariel Pestano, deep in a four-game slump, followed with a duplicate solo shot, to make it 6-0.
After allowing a double to Edgardo Alfonso and a home run by Endy Chavez in the seventh, Pedro Luis Lazo turned up the heat and retired seven of the last eight batters to complete a memorable 5-inning save.
”Two days ago when Puerto Rico beat Cuba, everyone said we were already out of the tournament," said an elated Lazo, "But Cuba is not gone. Cuba is still here to play, and whoever wants to beat it will really have to sweat it out.”
Venezuelan team captain, all-star shortstop Omar Vizquel, had a fluke bad day fielding. In the 5-run Cuban sixth, he had a ball lodge between the buttons of his shirt and failed to get a key out when bobbling another grounder.
Cuba turned two of their opponents scoring opportunities into double plays in the second and sixth innings and Venezuelan hitters fanned seven times. Yadel Marti picked up the win and Johann Santana took the loss, his second in the World Baseball Classic. Marti has thrown 8.1 scoreless innings in three WBC appearances. In all Cuba had 10 hits to Venezuela’s five.
In other play on Sunday, the United States got a run in the bottom of the ninth to come from behind to defeat Japan 4-3. Meanwhile, the other Pool 1 game was a hard fought pitching duel won by South Korea 2-1 over Mexico. The Koreans have yet to lose in WBC play.
On Monday afternoon Cuba faces the hard hitting Dominican Republic, which lost its undefeated status against Puerto Rico on Sunday evening 7-1. The game is a must win for the Dominicans, while Cuba needs at least another victory in one of its next two games against the Dominicans or Puerto Rico on Wednesday to advance to the semi-finals.