In last year's inaugural World Baseball Classic, the United States sent a team of major league stars that barely made it to the second round, while Cuba–playing against big leaguers from around the world–made it all the way to the championship game, losing to Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ichiro and Japan.
Since then, however, American college and professional players have gotten the best of Cuba in international baseball. That was the case again Sunday, as Team USA beat Cuba 6-3 to win the 2007 World Cup in Taiwan. The loss ended 25 years of Cuban domination of World Cup tournaments; South Korea in 1982 was the last team other than Cuba to win a World Cup, a span of eight consecutive events.
And for the U.S., it's the first World Cup title since 1974. But perhaps more importantly, the U.S. has gained the upper hand on Cuba–the dominant nation in international baseball for more than a generation–in the last two years. USA Baseball's college national team won the FISU World University Games title in Cuba last summer, and Team USA's pros beat Cuba to win the Olympic qualifier in Cuba last summer as well. This year, Cuba beat the U.S. college team in the finals of the Pan American Games in Brazil, but when the two nations put their best players on the same field in the World Cup, the Americans once again came away victorious.
It's a significant reversal from the first half of this decade, when Cuba beat the U.S. in Taiwan to win the 2001 World Cup, then won the Olympic gold medal in 2004 in Athens after the U.S. failed to qualify. Then in 2005, Cuba destroyed the Americans, who finished ninth, on its way to the last World Cup gold medal.
The American formula for success against Cuba has been simple–when Major League Baseball's clubs allow top prospects to play for Team USA, the Americans have a fighting chance. The 2001 and 2005 Team USA rosters were populated more with minor league veterans and just a smattering of prospects, while the 2000 Olympic gold-medal winners as well as this World Cup title team were filled with top talent. This year's roster features several of the game's top prospects, with a formidable lineup featuring Colby Rasmus (Cardinals), Evan Longoria (Rays), Steve Pearce (Pirates) and Andy LaRoche (Dodgers), among others.
In Sunday's finale, American starter Brian Duensing (Twins) pitched four shutout innings and was staked to a five-run lead, as Jason Jaramillo (Phillies) and Jayson Nix (Rockies) powered the Americans to a big early lead against Cuban starter Yadel Marti, who starred in last year's WBC and earlier in the tournament missed throwing a perfect game against Venezuela by one out. Jaramillo had an RBI single in a three-run second inning, and Marti walked two runners home later in the frame. Jaramillo added an RBI single in the third inning, and Nix made it 5-0 with a solo homer in the fourth.
Cuba rallied for a pair of runs in the fifth to chase Duensing, but righthander Steven Shell (Angels) got out of the jam to preserve the lead. Justin Ruggiano (Rays) made it 6-2 Team USA with a sacrifice fly in the seventh, and while Cuba added a run in the eighth, righty Jeff Stevens (Indians) was able to close the Cubans out for his second save of the tournament.
Baseball America will have much more on the World Cup both online and in the next edition of Baseball America magazine.
Japan won the bronze medal with a combined two-hitter in a 5-0 victory over the Netherlands.