Cuba Holds Off Puerto Rico To Reach Semifinals

SAN JUAN, P.R.–Cuba’s big red mystique grew even larger on Wednesday night.

The
reigning kings of international baseball proved they belong on the
biggest stage, avenging their second-ever knockout loss by scoring an
improbable 4-3 victory over Puerto Rico at the inaugural World Baseball
Classic, assuring their passage into the final four of this 16-country
tournament.

Just three games ago the Cubans were crying mercy to Puerto Rico, getting pelted off the field after seven innings, 12-2.

This
time, however, Cuba had some of its top pitchers in reserve, and the
rematch was every bit as compelling as Cuban manager Higinio Velez
promised it would be – although he wouldn’t be around the game’s
dramatic final act.

Cuba survived a furious rally that
included two disputed calls in the field against them, Carlos Delgado’s
Willis Reed moment in the eighth inning and the bases-loaded, one out
jam Delgado’s pinch-hit single helped produce later in the inning.

“What
I said [last Friday] proved to be an omen,” Velez said. “When we got
knocked out I said that was just one battle, that the war had yet to
begin. No one believed we could do it, but we know the quality of Cuban
baseball. We knew we could do it.”

Down 4-1, Puerto Rico
rallied with two runs in a long, argument-filled seventh inning. With
runners on first-and-third and no outs, pinch-hitter Ricky Ledee hit a
slow roller to second base. As Puerto Rico’s second run scored, second
baseman Yuliesky Gourriel fielded the ball and threw to shortstop
Eduardo Paret for the apparent force play, but second-base umpire James
Hoye ruled (correctly, replays would show) that Paret’s foot was off
the base when he caught the ball.

Velez protested vehemently, and when he wouldn’t relent, was tossed from the game by Hoye.

“I
didn’t see the replays, but I can’t fault the umpires. I’m sure they
called them the way they saw them,” Velez said. “It’s not the first
time a manager argues a call and it’s not the first time a manager gets
kicked out of a game.”

Bernie Williams, whose first-inning
homer had accounted for Puerto Rico’s first run, hit into a double
play, pushing Alex Cintron to third. Ivan Rodriguez then drew a walk,
and Carlos Beltran followed with a single to center field that scored
Ledee. When center fielder Carlos Tabares bobbled the ball Rodriguez
tried to score the tying run all the way from first, but the relay
throw from Gourriel beat him to the plate and Cuban catcher Ariel
Pestano applied the tag just in time.

“That was the play of
the game,” said Pestano. “Gourriel has a real strong arm and he made a
good throw. If we don’t get him Puerto Rico probably wins.”

With
the Cubans wearing the all-red uniforms they reserve for only their
biggest games, it quickly became evident that this wasn’t going to be
anything like Friday night.

Puerto Rico starter Dicky
Gonzalez, dominant in his first start against the Cubans on Friday,
needed 31 pitches to get through the first inning, walking Paret and
Michel Enriquez to open the game.

Velez started the runners
on consecutive pitches, the second time avoiding a double play on a
ground out to third base by Gourriel. The next batter, Ariel Borrero
grounded out to Alex Cora at second base, plating Cuba’s first run.

Puerto
Rico needed little time getting it back. Leadoff man Williams got a fat
3-1 offering from Cuban starter Osmani Romero and sent it over the
right field fence to tie the game at 1-1.

Cuba broke on top
in the fourth inning, loading the bases against Gonzalez on singles by
Osmani Urrutia and Yoandy Garlobo and a walk to Alexei Ramirez.

Puerto
Rico manager Jose Oquendo then turned to Jose Santiago, who threw two
quick strikes to Eduardo Paret before hitting him in the leg with his
fifth pitch, forcing in a run.

Santiago seemed poised to
avoid further damage when Enriquez grounded into a force play at home
for the second out. But Cintron, after making a nice backhand stop on a
ground ball by Gourriel, threw wide of Alex Cora trying to get the
force out at second base, and two more runs scored.

They
would prove to be the difference as Puerto Rico, which put at least one
runner on base in every inning but the ninth, blew a trio of
particularly good opportunities over its final six at-bats.

The
Puerto Ricans stranded runners at second and third in both the fourth
and fifth innings, and loaded the bases against Vichoandry Odelin in
the eighth on a single by Cruz, a pinch-hit single by Delgado (in his
first appearance of the Classic) and a controversial error on first
baseman Joan Carlos Pedroso.

On that play, it appeared that
Odelin had thrown Jose Valentin out at first base on a slow dribbler to
the left of the mound. But first base umpire Rob Drake ruled that Cuban
first baseman Pedroso bobbled the ball, prompting another strong
protest from the Cubans.

All the fuss didn’t matter, it
turned out, when Cintron, desperate to atone for his earlier mistake,
grounded into a rally-killing double play.

“Alex is a line drive hitter. He hit the ball hard, but right at Paret,” Oquendo said. “You’ve got to feel for him.”

It
was the last chance Puerto Rico would get. In the ninth, Odelin set
down Ruben Gotay (on a liner back to the mound), Williams (on a foul
out) and Rodriguez (on a game-ending strikeout) in order, picking up
the save and sending Cuba on its way to a Saturday date with the
Dominican Republic at Petco Park.

“For me it’s back to the
drawing board,” Velez said. “We have to again figure out a strategy for
a team that beat us the first time we faced them.”

Gonzalez,
who allowed four hits and four runs, just two earned, over 3 1/3
innings took the loss. Romero allowed three hits and a run over four
innings to get the win.

International | #2006 #International Affairs #World Baseball Classic

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