The last time the World Cup was held in Taiwan in 2001, Cuba squashed American hopes for its first gold medal in this competition since 1974, beating the U.S. 5-3 in the championship game. It was the seventh straight World Cup gold for Cuba, which has won two more golds since then in 2003 (in Cuba) and 2005 (in the Netherlands).
Four years later, the U.S. has earned a rematch. Team USA tossed its second straight pitching gem of the medal round and beat the Netherlands 5-0 in the 2007 World Cup semifinals. Righthander Matt Wright (Royals) got the victory with six shutout innings and was supported by a first-inning leadoff homer by outfielder Colby Rasmus (Cardinals). Wright struck out six and gave up just four hits, and the Americans rallied with four runs in the eighth inning to put the game away.
Three relievers wrapped up the final three scoreless innings to back up Wright, as Neal Musser (Royals), Lee Gronkiewicz (Blue Jays) and closer Chris Booker (Nationals) kept the Dutch from reprising their late rally that they put together in the quarterfinals to upset host Taiwan.
Rasmus also helped launch the American eighth-inning rally, as he and Jayson Nix (Rockies) singled to follow a leadoff walk to Brian Bixler (Pirates). Nix’s hit chased Dutch starter David Bergman and made it 2-0, and two batters latter, Steve Pearce (Pirates) singled to right to plate two more runs. A sacrifice fly by Justin Ruggiano (Devil Rays) completed the scoring.
Team USA will play Cuba after the Cubans beat Japan’s upstart team of amateurs 5-3. Aroldis Chapman allowed just three hits and struck out 11 in eight innings to lead Cuba, which held off a Japan two-run rally in the bottom of the ninth to secure the victory. Japan’s rally came off Pedro Luis Lazo, Cuba’s longtime international closer, but Yuniesky Maya closed out the game for the save, another sign of Cuba’s impressive pitching depth.
The Americans’ options to start against Cuba include lefthanders Brian Duensing (Twins) and Josh Outman (Phillies) and righthander Dallas Trahern (Tigers), with Duensing the favorite considering his good command of four pitches and Triple-A resume.
In consolation games, Korea shut out host Taiwan 3-0 and Australia banged out 13 hits to beat Mexico 7-1. But all eyes will now be focused on the U.S. and Cuba for the gold medal, a matchup that Cuba has dominated for most of the last 30 years internationally. The Americans did beat Cuba the last time the two nations’ top-level national teams last played, however, in the finale of the 2006 Olympic qualifying tournament. That was in Havana, when Twins righthander Kevin Slowey tossed five innings and homers by Michael Bourn (now with the Astros), Brandon Wood (Angels) and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (now with the Rangers) powered the Americans to an 8-5 victory in the final.
Cuba had beaten the U.S. previously in the ’05 World Cup (beating current Royals righty Brian Bannister), as well as in the ’01 Cup final, and had won the 2004 Olympic gold medal while the U.S. watched from the sidelines, having failed to qualify for Athens. Cuban national teams are 5-2 against American professionals in international play since 1999, losing only in ’06 in Havana and in the 2000 Olympic gold-medal game when Brewers righthander Ben Sheets tossed a complete-game three-hit shutout.