Cuba Plays USA in the WBC Semifinals: Baseball & Politics


By Ronald Quiñones

HAVANA TIMES – The United States defeated Venezuela 9-7 on Saturday night, thanks to a grand slam in the eighth inning and will be Cuba’s rival this Sunday evening in the first semifinal game of the 2023 World Baseball Classic.

The US team comes with the adrenaline that last night’s victory entails, which allows them to keep alive their aspirations to retain the crown achieved in 2017 (remember that the 2021 version of the WBC was not held due to the Covid-19 pandemic).

The clash against the Cubans will have a lot of morbid curiosity, due to all the political backdrop involved in anything between these two nations that have been in conflict for more than half a century. A conflict that sports have never been able to escape.

The game is scheduled for 7:00 PM ET (the same time in Cuba). In the United States it can be seen live on Fox Sports and in Cuba possibly on TV Rebelde.

It is mainly from Cuba that almost everything is distorted, because Cuban athletes are taught from a young age that they can lose with anyone, except their neighbor to the north. The new generations are increasingly moving away from this bias, but no one doubts that this Sunday the island’s media will be filled with slogans promoting the rivalry beyond a baseball game.

If that atmosphere penetrates the locker room, it could be fatal, because up to now the Cuban team has played very happily (thanks to the imported Cuban players, who don’t see the games as if their lives depended on it). If that mentality is lost and escapes the merely sporting plane, a schism could occur and erase with a stroke the hint of a unified team that they have wanted to sell.

All of Cuba’s political institutions, from the president to the Foreign Ministry, extending to all the ministries, have taken the performance of the squad very seriously, which exceeded all expectations, but that could be tarnished if the setback is against the United States.

From lip service they will say that the US is a rival like any other, but make no mistake, defeat would hurt more than any other, and victory would be enjoyed more than any other. I would dare to say that the final against the winner of the Japan-Mexico would be dwarfed in significance. If the title is not won, eliminating the hosts in the semifinals would reach dimensions of a feat and would be maximized in all the official media ad nauseam.

If in 2006 during the first WBC, a second place was celebrated, quite logically due to the enormous importance of the event, this time the celebration would last the whole month, no one here doubts it.

With the Cuban Baseball League scheduled to start at the end of March, the members of the WBC squad will be honored in all the stadiums if the long-awaited victory against the US takes place, and only in the league’s opening ceremony if Team Cuba loses.

But entering the exclusively sports field, there are two teams who have never played against each other despite both being founders of the WBC.

Cuba only advanced to a semifinal round in the first edition, and in the preliminary phases it always played in Japan except in that one in 2006, while the United States, as is logical, has not left its national territory.

Before the Classic started, few were betting on the Cubans, but instead on their rivals. The Cuban roster was well below what it could have been if more Cubans playing in the Major Leagues opted to take part. In pitching, specifically, there were too many notable absences.

Apart from that situation, the United States is still the favorite, but in this fickle sport anyone can win or lose a game.

According to the collective batting statistics, Cuba finished eighth in runs scored (29), fourth in batting (.311) and OBP (.394), ninth in slugging (.431) and seventh in OPS (.825).

In pitching, the Caribbean team ranked fourth in Earned Run Average (3.20) and strikeouts (49), was the second with the fewest home runs (only two), fifth in runners on base per inning (1.18) and rival average (.217), and eighth in strikeouts and walks per complete game (9.60 and 3.40).

However, it was the team that gave up the most fly balls, only 0.71 ground balls for each connection to the outfield, and this aspect becomes much more dangerous against numerous US sluggers that usually swings for the fences.

Throughout the tournament, Paul Goldschmidt, Kyle Tucker, Tim Anderson and Mike Trout were the best hitters among the Stars and Stripes, while Yoan Moncada, Yadir Dreke, Alfredo Despaigne and Yadil Mujica excelled for the Cubans.

If something clearly benefits Cuba, it is the restrictions imposed on MLB players, especially pitchers, since probably none of those who worked this Saturday against Venezuela could do so on Sunday.

We are talking in this case about important pitchers on the roster like Lance Lynn, Adam Ottavino, Daniel Bard, Josh Adam, David Bednar and Devin Williams. It is possible that closer Ryan Pressly could pitch in two consecutive games, but the rest of them are theoretically not allowed by their respective clubs. However, they could make an exception when dealing with so many factors.

In addition, the starter will hardly exceed 60 pitches, and all this plays in favor of the Cubans, who will squeeze any pitcher up to the limit of 80 pitches if necessary and have the entire staff available.

If these limitations are actually met, the options for Cuba grow significantly, because their rivals have hit a lot in their last games, but their pitching has also allowed quite a few runs, and in this give and take it seems to me that the Cubans are better off.

In any case, we are talking about unpredictable events, but the Cubans cling to the fact that Mexico achieved it in the preliminary stage (beating the USA 11-5), and if it happened once, it could happen twice.

Get comfortable in your seat, because besides good baseball, here there is also enhanced curiosity because the game will be played in Miami, the historical headquarters of anti-Castroism.

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