By Ray Otero (baseballdecuba.com)
HAVANA TIMES — Team Cuba improved its image in Group B of the IV World Baseball Classic, obtaining its first victory, 6-0 over China, in the Tokyo Dome on Wednesday afternoon before 39,102 fans.
The victory gave the Cubans a 1-1 record after losing 11-6 to Japan the day before. On Friday afternoon – (Thursday night at 10:00 p.m. in Cuba/EST) – the team will play against Australia, the last clash of the First Round of the tournament, and which will define who advances to the next stage for this group.
Vladimir Banos, 34, started for Cuba and left-hander Bruce Chen, 39, for China.
Cuba began aggressively against Chen in the first inning, when with one out Alexander Ayala shot double to left and Frederich Cepeda received a walk. However Chen struck out Alfredo Despaigne and retired to William Saavedra on a grounder to short. Despite not allowing runs, Chen made a total of 21 pitches.
In the second Yurisbel Gracial opened the inning with single to left, his third consecutive in this CMB, and later stole second, but Carlos Benítez continued in his slump, striking out for the first out of the inning. Chen got out of trouble again, retiring Frank C. Morejon on a grounder to third and Yoelkis Cespedes on another to second.
In the third, Chen got into trouble again, when Roel Santos opened the inning with an infield hit on a slow grounder to the pitcher. Chen then forced Ayala to bat into a double play from third to second to first. He left the game after making his 49th pitch so he would be able to work once again in this first round, The left-hander, came out after completing 2 2/3 innings, achieving his goal of keeping his squad in the game He allowed three hits and a walk with 2 strikeouts, but above all, without allowing Cuba any runs.
His reliever, right-hander Xia Luo, started his job by issuing a walk to Cepeda, his second in the game, and then Despaigne singled to center. After a conversation with his pitching coach, Luo ended up dominating William Saavedra on a roller to third, to maintain the game scoreless.
Meanwhile, Cuban starter Vladimir Baños shined in the first four innings, retiring the twelve men he faced with 51 pitches, 31 of them strikes.
In the bottom of the fourth the Cubans would finally get on the scoreboard. With one out, Carlos Benitez singled to third and moved to second when Luo hit catcher Morejon. Yoelkis Cespedes followed with a hit against the right field wall, and in a stroke of luck, China’s relay throw went to third base, instead of home plate, where Benitez sought to score. In short, the Cuban second baseman scored the first run of the game with an RBI for Cespedes, leaving Morejon and Cespedes on third and first respectively.
Both players came around to score on a triple of Roel Santos to center. Santos also crossed the plate on a double by Ayala to left, on a play where the left outfielder looked too aggressive and “completely” lost the ball. Luo would last more two batters, and would be replaced after walking Despaigne. His work was summarized in only one innng, 5 hits, 4 earned runs and 2 walks, for which he took the loss. The new reliever, right-hander Quang Gan, finished the inning by striking out Saavedra, but Cuba now had a 4-0 lead.
Baños, with 57 pitches, gave up his first hit in the fifth with one out. Shunyi Yang broke the chain of 13 batters retired in order by the Cuban starter. Yang would steal second and anchor at third base later, but would stay there, when catcher Wang provided the last out on a grounder to Gracial on third base.
Thus Baños culminated his excellent work, completing 5 innings of only one jit, no runs, four strikeouts, and without a walk. His threw 67 pitches, 40 of them in the strike zone. From the number of pitches (over 50) he will not be able to work again in this first round.
The fifth inning for Cuba started with Gracial batting a single to right. He then stole second, his second theft of the game. However Benitez, Morejon and Cespedes, would be retired in order.
Cuba scored two more runs, one in the bottom of the 6th and another in the 7th. In the sixth, Santos doubled and scored when Cepeda hit into a double play. In the seventh Garcial doubled and Morejon drove him in with the final RBI.
As to Cuba’s relievers, Right-hander Vladimir Garcia completed two innings with a walk and two strikeouts, throwing 35 pitches, 21 of them strikes. Left-handed Livan Moinelo then struck out the side in the eighth and Miguel Lahera closed by throwing the 9th with a strikeout.
The victor went to Vladimir Baños (1-0), his first in World Baseball Classic, while Xia Luo (0-1) took the loss.
Cuba’s manager Carlos Marti worked his bench during the game and so we saw Yordan Manduley, Victor V. Mesa, Guillermo Avilés, Jefferson Delgado and Osvaldo Vázquez come into play with Mesa being the only one to get on base, connecting a double in the bottom of the eighth.
In general, the Cubans needed to adjust their swing after a frustrating first third of the game when they left runners on base each inning. After a team meeting with manager Marti, the response was instantaneous, with the four runs in the bottom of the fourth, which in the end decided the encounter.
Cuba will now face Australia with its best pitcher, right-hander Lazaro Blanco, and most of its best arms ready to relieve, knowing that a victory will assure them the qualifying ticket to Round Two.
In Group A, Israel and the Netherlands have already assured their Second Round, leaving China-Taipei and South Korea out the next phase of the tournament. In Group B, either Cuba or Australia will join Japan, Israel and the Netherlands in Round Two.
On Thursday Round One play begins for Groups C (Canada, Colombia, Dominican Republic and the USA) and D (Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico and Italy).