Once again, America’s top minor leaguers succeeded where its big leaguers have failed.
Team USA won its 14th consecutive game in Europe and second over Cuba in three games to win the 2009 World Cup gold medal, beating Cuba 10-5 Sunday in Nettuno, Italy. The victory gives the U.S. its second consecutive Cup championship, defending the title won in 2007. It’s also just the fourth World Cup ever won by the United States in baseball. [Box Score]
Justin Smoak (Rangers), who hit nine home runs in the tournament, was named MVP of the event and contributed during a six-run, seventh-inning rally that broke a 4-4 tie. The U.S. beat Cuba’s best, scoring six runs (three earned) off veteran righthander Norge Vera, who took the loss, and chasing ageless Cuban closer Pedro Luis Lazo in the seventh after three hitters without an out.
The key U.S. rally started with two outs, when Tug Hulett (Royals), who also had a solo homer in the fifth inning, drew a walk off Vera. Buck Coats (Blue Jays) followed with a double, moving Hulett to third and chasing Vera in favor of Lazo. Hulett scored when Trevor Plouffe (Twins) hit a grounder to second and reached safely when the ball was booted by first baseman Ariel Borrero. Smoak’s RBI single brought home Coats, and Jon Weber (Rays) singled to score Plouffe and make it 7-4. That was it for Lazo, and the U.S. wound up stringing five singles together in the rally.
Lucas May (Dodgers), who had staked Team USA starter Cory Luebke (Padres) to a 3-0 lead with a three-run homer in the second, had one of the RBI hits and wound up 2-for-4 with a game-best four RBIs. Luebke struck out seven but lasted just 4 1/3 innings, giving up six hits and two runs.
Righthander Brad Lincoln (Pirates) wound up getting the victory, even though he squandered a 4-2 lead. He pitched 4 1/3 innings himself, giving up six hits and three runs. Nate Field (Marlins) got the last out.
The U.S. lost twice to Cuba in the Olympics in 2008, but despite that has won four of its last six meetings with Cuba, including the 2006 Olympic qualifier final, the finals of the last two World Cups in ’07 and ’09, and the third-round game played Friday. Cuba’s long run of domination of international baseball continued to wane, as the Cubans remain without a major international tournament championship since the 2005 World Cup.
Alfredo Despaigne was the brightest spot in the tournament for Cuba, hitting his record 11th home run off Lincoln in the eighth inning. Cuba out-hit the U.S. 12-9 but committed three errors while the U.S. was flawless defensively.
Weber wound up leading Team USA with a .421 average in the Cup. Smoak led the club with nine homers and 22 RBIs, batting .291/.418/.818. Team USA mashed 38 home runs in 15 games, leading the field.
The rest of the field finished like this:
• Canada won the bronze, its best-ever showing in World Cup play, by beating Puerto Rico 6-2. It’s Canada’s best international showing since it won bronze at the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg. Jimmy Van Ostrand (Astros) put things away with a two-run homer for Canada in the eighth.
“I’m kinda speechless," former Giants farmhand Chris Begg, a veteran of Canadian national teams, told Baseball.ca. “This is pretty incredible especially with a bunch of new faces on this team, so I think baseball is looking pretty bright in Canada.”
• Australia finished fifth, beating the Netherlands 4-1. Stephen Welch (Mets) homered for the Aussies, and lefthander David Welch (Brewers) finished a brilliant tournament with a victory. Welch threw 24 innings, gave up just three earned runs and struck out 27.
• Venezuela took seventh place, beating Taiwan 6-3 as Rene Reyes singled home two more runs. The former Rockies outfielder led the tournament with 24 RBIs.
All of Saturday’s winning teams (as well as Puerto Rico and the Netherlands) had rosters heavy with minor leaguers and ex-big leaguers. The three Asian nations of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan sent either industrial leaguers (Japan) or mixes of minor leaguers and amateurs (Korea, Taiwan), and that wasn’t good enough at this World Cup.