By PETER C. BJARKMAN
HAVANA TIMES, March 12 – Cuba’s emotional comeback victory over spunky Australia was one of the true “classics” of island baseball history. I have seen few games over the past dozen years of covering Cuban baseball and watching the national team abroad that packed more drama or carried more importance.
The chaotic victory in the rain and sleet over Panama at Haarlem’s Pim Müller Stadium (at the 2005 World Cup semifinals) may have been more impressionistic for its true bizarreness; yet that game was played largely on a hollow stage, since few watch the World Cup in the major ball-playing nations.
Beating Puerto Rico in the WBC second round of 2006 was more significant perhaps, but only marginally so. That time around no one was expecting Cuba to succeed, and the pressures may thus not have been quite as elevated.
It is always harder for a champion (this case a sub-champion) to get back to its lofty perch the second time around. This time all eyes are squarely on Team Cuba, and a failure to reach at least the second round in San Diego would be a huge embarrassment at home as well as abroad.
The claim that this game ranks with Team Cuba’s greatest is no slight assertion in light of the almost endless list of highlight moments over the past four decades and more. If I had to choose my top three memorable Team Cuba games this one would likely head the list.
The two main competitors for the title would be the victory over Puerto Rico that clinched a spot in the 2006 WBC semifinals, and the 2003 World Cup victory against Panama in Havana’s Latin American Stadium (coming with Cepeda’s two solo homers in the final four frames).
The victory over Australia on Tuesday carried more significance than might be at first imagined. For all of Cuba’s international successes, it is the WBC that now finally provides a broad enough stage for Cuban teams to prove their valor and stature to the mainstream of the baseball viewing world.
Countless victories in IBAF tournaments, like the Amateur World Series (renamed the World Cup in 1988) or Intercontinental Cup have not been headline-makers-especially since those games have involved few high-profile big leaguers.
This event is the big-time stage Cuban baseball has been coveting for decades-the chance to prove that its native league (a pure “national” league with Cubans only and no imports) and its socialist baseball system are equal to any versions of the sport found elsewhere on the globe. Thus a return trip to San Diego in this second “Clasico” is one of the top challenges in the annals of Cuba’s revered national sport.
With the Australian game now relegated to the history books, and with a Cuba-Mexico showdown about to ring down the curtain on Pool B play here in Mexico, it is time for some reflections on the week’s exciting if more-or-less expected events and results. Five events and issues seem to merit special commentary.
These all involve the solidness of Team Cuba, through the first two games, and its failure to disappoint either at home or abroad; but these remarks also must touch on some sour notes struck by an outspoken Australian manager, as well as on a needed defense of the current double-elimination system of WBC play.
Australian skipper John Deeble is a talented manager and inspirational leader for his Australian Baseball Federation. Deeble deserves nothing but respect for the surprising (to those who don’t follow Australian baseball closely) display of talent offered by his team here in Mexico. And for the most part the personable and candid manager was an excellent spokesman for the admirable progress of Australian baseball. But there were some moments this week that left one scratching his head in mild amazement.
Deeble’s charge, after Tuesday’s game-that the Cubans had used some kind of despicable tactic by illegally switching their announced batting order-certainly rang hollow. And the strength of his unproven charge that “the Cubans are always doing this, and MLB or the IBAF will never do anything about it” seemed somewhat over the top, even in the heated aftermath of a tough loss.
The Cuban lineup (with Mayeta dropped two slots in the order) was not the one announced to the press earlier in the day, but it didn’t have to be. The correct batting alignment was certified by MLB officials and the umpires (30 minutes before game time, as legislated); the reason why Deeble did not have that batting order is surely a mystery, but also surely not the doing of the Cubans. In the past Cuban managers have often been coy with their starting lineups (especially their announced pitchers) but never outside the rules, at least not in any cases I have ever seen documented. At any rate, it seemed a rather small issue to be raised in the shadows of Tuesday’s 5-4 late-inning loss.
A second observation involves the characteristics of Tuesday night’s rather surprising Cuban late-hour victory. It was at the same time both a game characteristic and yet uncharacteristic of so many previous “miraculous” victories in the pressure of international tournament play. Rarely over the years have the Cubans beaten themselves, as they almost did when Lazo’s disastrous pickoff throw opened a two-run deficit. And rarely have they had to dig their way out of such a late-inning hole. And when they have had to do that, they have not been particularly successful in recent outings.
The last several times the Cubans found themselves desperately battling from behind in major tournament games occurred in the 2006 WBC finals with Japan, the 2007 World Cup championship match with Team USA, and the 2008 Beijing Olympic gold medal game. The latter case provides the perfect contrast with the recent Australia game.
Falling behind early but yet staying in contention on the strength of solid pitching by Norberto González, the Cubans fell into a deeper hole when a run off Pedro Lazo in the seventh expanded the margin to 3-1. But eventually trailing by only a single tally in the bottom of the ninth the defending gold medalists managed to revive by loading the bases with only one out and Gourriel and Despaigne coming to the plate.
The needed big hit was not to be found, however, when the Korean manager gambled on playing his infield at double play depth and Gourriel’s sharp bouncer to second resulted in a dream-ending twin-killing and not a victory-producing single.
Another issue worthy of at least brief comment has been the on-field strategy of manager Vélez. So far, at least, the Cuban skipper has seemingly pulled all the strings perfectly. His selection of Vera as opening day starter against the South Africans was without flaw; Vera breezed for six frames and stronger arms like Chapman and Maya were saved for steeper challenges.
The anticipated move of Yulieski to third and Olivera to second, while leaving Enríquez in the DH slot, has already paid large dividends. Enríquez has been hot at the plate (two big doubles versus Australia) while Olivera adds another whole dimension (offensively and defensively) to an already potent lineup. Chapman was definitely the best choice for the mound assignment against Australia and performed up to expectations if not beyond, cooling the Australian slugging of two nights earlier.
Finally the choice to go with Peraza in the crucial eighth inning might have been a risky move (given Peraza’s difficulties with overpowering fastballs like the one Rich Thompson possesses) yet was also in the end exactly on target.
Higinio clearly had another option when he elected to insert Peraza and take a chance on going for the fences. Cuban managers have often been criticized for too much small ball-bunting runners into scoring position and playing for single tallies at the expense of big innings. Here an alternative option might well have been to insert Paret (slightly injured but available on the bench) or Leslie Anderson to sacrifice Gourriel to second and thus rely on Despaigne to deliver a game-tying single with two outs. Or Higinio could have stayed with Joan Carlos Pedroso who has been hot at the plate all winter (even if the Las Tunas sluggers has frequently disappointed in international play). And there was also another key decision to be made after the dramatic homer. The Cuban manager elected to remain with Ismel Jiménez on the mound, and Jiménez also delivered during the home eighth and ninth in fine style.
A final observation about the first two games is that this particular version of the national team is certainly ready to play, and may indeed be one of the most potent Cuban outfits ever assembled. The squad pasted together by Higinio and his cohorts displays an ideal balance of tested veteran experience with youthful energy and emerging talent.
The final game of each pool between the two qualifiers is now-under the present system-anything but a meaningless affair, since it determines important Round Two opening game match-ups. If the Cuba-versus-Mexico showdown tonight between heated traditional rivals were not already loaded with enough built-in drama, it now takes on an added significance with Asian powers Japan and Korean lurking on the horizon.
This is a segment of the http://www.baseballdecuba.com/WBC.asp article titled “Mexico City’s Pool B Rolls to Conclusion with Only a Few Small Surprises” provided to Havana Times by Peter C. Bjarkman from Mexico City.