Technically, Thursday’s game in the World Cup didn’t mean anything for Team USA. But every game between the U.S. and Cuba has meaning.
For the U.S., Thursday’s 5-3 victory means the Americans have a 12-game World Cup winning streak. Already having clinched a spot in Sunday’s championship game, Team USA also got a leg up on its probable opponent in that game by beating the Cubans, long an international power.
"We’ve had great chemistry, as our guys have persevered through a lot of irregular travel and the schedule," U.S. manager Eddie Rodriguez said in a postgame telephone interview from Nettuno, Italy. "But we’ve got a close-knit group, which is unusual for the length of time we’ve been together. We know what’s at stake. We know what our mission is."
Their mission Sunday will be to beat Cuba again in the championship game. Due to a loss by the Netherlands and the tournament’s tiebreakers, Cuba has clinched the top spot in its pool and will meet the Americans in the championship game. [CORRECTION: The championship game is not yet set.]
Cuba, which has won 25 World Cups (no other nation has won more than three), has slipped in recent years. It hasn’t won a major international tournament since the 2005 Cup in the Netherlands, including championship-game losses to South Korea in last year’s Olympics, to the U.S. in the ’07 World Cup and ’06 Olympic qualifier, and to Daisuke Matsuzaka and Japan in the ’06 World Baseball Classic. The Cubans have sent their top players to the World Cup—many of the same players who failed to make the final four at this spring’s WBC—and had an 11-1 record coming into Thursday’s game. However, Cuba continued to have some offensive struggles against the U.S., as righthanders Lucas Harrell and Ehren Wasserman, both White Sox farmhands, did the job on the mound, with help from Cedrick Bowers.
Harrell came on in the second inning when Trevor Reckling (Angels) left with an apparent pulled muscle after one inning. (Rodriguez didn’t elaborate on the injury post-game but said Reckling seemed fine and that the injury wasn’t serious.) Harrell pitched four scoreless innings, giving up only one hit while striking out two and walking one. He has had a tremendous World Cup, pitching 10 scoreless innings with just two hits and two walks allowed.
"Harrell pounds the strike zone, pitches ahead and isn’t afraid of contact," Rodriguez said of the 23-year-old, who went 12-4, 3.27 between Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte this season. "He’s having fun, and not letting the crowd, or the other team, or the umpires, or anything else affect him."
Cuba rallied in the seventh. The inning started with Michel Enriquez hitting a solo home run off B.J. Rosenberg (Phillies). Rosenberg then lost Fredrich Cepeda on a walk and lost his cool when a 1-2 pitch was called a ball. He gave up a single to Alfredo Despaigne and an RBI double to Yulieski Gourriel, then walked Yoennis Cespedes to leave the bases full with two runs in and none out.
Cedric Bowers (Phillies) then came on and got massive pinch-hitter Yosvany Peraza to ground into a 4-6-3 double play, scoring a run to make it 4-3. Wasserman then got the inning’s third out and the last six as the U.S. held on.
"That was the key play right there," Rodriguez said. "Bowers did his job and Wasserman did his job, and we were able to stay ahead."
Team USA also turned a key double play in the eighth, as Trevor Plouffe (Twins) committed an error, booting a routine double-play grounder to put runners at first and second with one out. Plouffe came right back on the next batter and started a 6-4-3 DP to end the inning.
The Americans took an early 4-0 lead on an RBI double in the first by Ike Davis (Mets) and a two-run homer by Terry Tiffee (Phillies) in the third off losing pitcher Maikel Folch. The fourth run came off reliever Yadier Pedroso, as Pedro Alvarez (Pirates) walked, moved to second on a single by Josh Kroeger and scored on a single by Jason Castro (Astros).
The Americans got an insurance run in the eighth off Pedroso, who was generally excellent for Cuba, striking out seven in 4 2/3 innings. Kroeger got his third single of the game, moved to second on Castro’s sacrifice and scored on Buck Coats’ two-out RBI single.
Team USA plays the Netherlands on Friday in its final scheduled third-round game, with lefthander Kasey Kiker scheduled to start. The Netherlands lost to Canada 11-5 on Thursday, while Puerto Rico beat Taiwan 8-2, and Venezuela beat Australia 9-4 in a meaningless tilt.
Canada pounded 14 hits, scored seven runs in the seventh and eighth to come back from a 5-4 deficit, and got homers by Mets farmhands Shawn Bowman and Jonathan Malo to deal the Dutch a crucial defeat. Bowman’s homer was a two-run shot in the seventh that scored Malo and gave Canada a 6-5 lead. Brett Lawrie (Brewers) and Adam Loewen (Blue Jays) keyed the five-run eighth with a triple and double that greeted reliever Juan Carlos Sulberan (Reds).