Peter C. Bjarkman*
HAVANA TIMES — If Team Cuba at least temporarily dispelled one myth in Fukuoka on Wednesday (that they could perhaps never learn to hit funky Japanese pitching), they nonetheless failed miserably on Friday afternoon to dismiss yet another pervasive theme (that their new insurmountable hurdle seems to be the talent-rich forces of the Dutch national team).
In Panama in September 2011 a Cuban squad managed by Alfonso Urquiola went down harmlessly twice against the Dutch forces (their only two tournament defeats) and thus squandered an opportunity to reclaim an IBAF world title during the final edition of the now-suspended Baseball World Cup.
In a Taiwan tune-up late last month Cuban bats were again effectively blanketed by Dutch pitching. At the 2010 Haarlem Baseball Week a Cuban B squad managed by Germán Mesa suffered through the only “mercy rule” drubbing (10-0) suffered by a top-level Cuban outfit in more than four full decades. In brief, The Netherlands (now featuring a host of young big league prospects like Kalian Sams, Andrelton Simmos and Jonathan Schoop) has recently become just as large a thorn in the Cuban side as have the two-time WBC champion Japanese.
Yesterday’s tough 6-2 setback against the Dutch here in the Tokyo Dome is easy enough to explain on the surface: shaky opening pitching by Ismel Jiménez, lack of key hits from the previously hot Cuban lineup, aggressive and opportunistic hitting from the Hollanders, and especially the defensive play of a Dutch middle infield that could well be the best in the entire World Baseball Classic field of sixteen. Jiménez surrendered a pair of crucial blasts (homer and double) in the second frame to hand Holland a lead they would never relinquish.
The Dutch stepped up big at the plate on the several occasions when they manufactured scoring threats, although they did twice leave runners stranded at third base. The Cubans with a dozen hits of their own managed to put plenty of runners on the base paths but then banged into rally-ending twin killings in five of their nine trips to the plate.
Cuba now faces exactly the same scenario as the one that sunk the islanders in San Diego four years back. In the 2009 Classic the team managed by Higinio Vélez entered round two coming off an impressive 3-0 sweep in Mexico City (wins over South Africa, Australia and host Mexico). But they ran into a Japanese wall in the San Diego opener (falling 6-0 to Diasuke Matsuzaka). Battling back to survive 7-4 against Mexico (thanks mainly to clutch hitting by Freddie Cepeda, who when 3-for-4 with a double and 4 RBIs), the Cubans earned a second shot at the Japanese and were silenced in identical fashion yet again, this time by a 5-0 count.
An identical drama is now about to be replayed, since Mesa and company must once again this time around win out against both Taiwan and then the loser of Sunday’s winners-bracket match between Holland and Japan. A loss in either game will mean that the dream of reaching the Classic finals will have been thwarted for the second straight time.
Diego Markwell did not exactly silence the Cuban bats in the Tokyo opener, but backed by solid defense he was just effective enough to get the job done. Markwell had earlier shut out Cuba 5-0 a late-February Taichung exhibition match and pitched from the start with great confidence.
But he did surrender nine safeties over six frames and didn’t strike out a single batter. His one lapse was a misplaced fastball that Alfredo Despaigne spanked into the right field seats in the bottom of the second. It was the five double plays by the Dutch infield (two off tame ground balls by cleanup hitter José Abreu) that effectively kept the Cuban offense at bay until Schoop’s three-run shot off Pedroso eventually put the game away.
The contest, however, was not without a pair of bright spots for the Cubans. Yulieski Gourriel finally broke out of a tournament-long hitless slump with a 2-for-4 afternoon highlighted by a ringing homer in the seventh off Leon Boyd. Unfortunately for the Cubans, the pair of long balls by Despaigne and Gourriel (the third straight two-homer game for Mesa’s club) both came with the bases empty of runners.
A second high point was the solid if futile relief effort turned in by Freddy Asiel Alvarez who hurled four effective innings and kept the game close throughout the middle innings. The two earned runs charged to Alvarez were in fact the result of the gopher ball that Pedroso eventually served up to Jonathan Schoop.
The game’s key blows for the Dutch came early off the bats of first sacker Curt Smith (an MLB free agent) and second baseman Jonathan Schoop (a major league with the Baltimore Orioles), and they provided a cushion that could never be surmounted by the stymied Cuban offense.
Batting in the seventh hole, Smith launched Ismel’s first pitch into the left field seats in the top of the second to provide an early lead and thus early momentum. With the game still close at 2-1 in the top of the sixth, Schoop rocketed a three-run shot off a fat 2-2 delivery served up by reliever Yadier Pedroso to ultimately decide the issue.
Unlike Fukuoka, the balls here seem to fly out of the Tokyo Dome and the overall hit parade saw the winners outslug the Cubans by a mere 14-12 margin. The big difference-makers, however, were the timely blows struck by the Dutch with base runners aboard and the five double plays turned in by the crack big-league keystone combination of Andrelton Simmons (Atlanta Braves) and Jonathan Schoop.
Commenting to the Cuba press about his two bad pitches in the second frame that resulted in the early Dutch lead, Ismel Jiménez admitted that he had made a major mistake with the fastball he left in the center of the plate to eight-spot hitter Kalian Sams; the result was a double that soon provided Holland’s second tally.
But Ismel also observed that the gopher ball served up to the previous hitter Smith was a solid low slider which the experienced professional hitter simply tattooed with authority. The homer was just a good piece of hitting, Ismel observed, and not any error on his own part.
Cuba’s opponent in the all-important Saturday night match will be Chinese Taipei, a solid team coming off its own major disappointment on Friday evening. The Taiwanese seemed to be on a fast track into the winner’s bracket in their Friday opener when starter Chien-Ming Wang (twice a 19-game winner with the New York Yankees in the big leagues) ran his current WBC scoreless innings string to 12 by shutting down the weak-hitting Japanese through six solid frames.
The game remained 2-0 until the eighth when Japan (the visiting team) finally broke through before a wild capacity home town crowd and knotted the count against free-agent southpaw reliever Hung-Chih Kuo. The crucial Japanese hits in the pivotal eighth came off the bats of a pair of home town Yomiuri Giants stars Shinnosuke Abe and Hayato Sakamoto.
The lead changes hands four times in the final three frames of the thrilling five hour dog fight but the tide in the end turned on Hirokazo Ibata’s tie-breaking single in the ninth and Sho Nakata’s tie-breaking (and eventually game-winning) sacrifice fly in the visitor’s tenth.
Cuba may well have dodged a bullet Friday night with the Taiwanese defeat which eliminated the necessity of an immediate rematch against their old nemesis Japan; the Nippon ball club not only has the bracket’s most potent pitching but is now reenergized and playing before noisy and partisan home crowds.
Beating the pesky Japanese twice in succession might well have been the stiffer challenge, although no must-win contest will be easy from here on out. Cuba faced the Taipei club twice in Taichung last month and split the series (a 6-5 loss and a 20-11 victory) and although the teams are evenly matched, the Cubans in the past have usually been able to find plenty of base hits off Taipei hurlers.
The starters have been announced as Ching-Lung Lo (a veteran right hander who currently labors for the Chinese Pro League Uni-President Lions) and Danny Betancourt (coming off an effective 4.2 inning start in the Pool A 12-0 romp over China). Lo is a lanky 6-6 fast-baller who saw only limited action in the Pool B games for Taiwan, making a brief relief appearance in the final losing match versus Korea and thus facing only six batters. The central issue tonight will boil down to which of the clubs is best prepared to roar back more successfully and aggressively from their shared stinging defeats in the Tokyo Dome openers. Nothing less than survival in the tournament and the chance for one final shot at a berth in San Francisco is now what is at stake.
(*) Peter Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, past and present. He has reported on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team as senior writer for www.BaseballdeCuba.com during the past six-plus years and is currently writing a book on the history of Cuba’s post-revolution national team.