By Eric Edwards
November 4, 2003
PANAMA CITY, Panama–Each time the gun is to their head, the chamber comes up empty for a Cuban baseball team that has been more escape artist than dynasty in its last two international competitions.
Monday at the Americas qualifier for the 2004 Olympic Games, Cuba rallied from a 3-1 deficit, winning 5-4 when Mexican reliever Miguel Duarte walked Frederich Cepeda with the bases loaded to force in the winning run in the home half of the 13th inning.
Cuba, held in check early by righthander Edgar Gonzalez (Diamondbacks), improves to 3-0 in the preliminary phase of the tournament, while Mexico falls to 0-2. Mexico plays Canada (2-0) Tuesday and could finish as high as second place in Group A should it beat the Canadians and the Cubans repeat that feat Wednesday.
After surviving two similar scares to win the World Cup in Havana last month, the Cubans again got the timely hits when they needed them, bailing out ace righthander Norge Vera, who wasn’t sharp a week after winning both the semifinal and final games of the World Cup. Cuba had to rally with single runs in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings to take a 4-3 lead.
“We’ve said all along we don’t underestimate any team here,’ said Cuban manager Higinio Velez. “Mexico has always played us tough. The last time we played them, the game was decided in the ninth inning.”
Mexico tied the game in the ninth when Cuban shortstop Eduardo Paret fielded a ground ball up the middle by Heber Gomez, but couldn’t get his throw to second base in time to force out Edgar Quintero, allowing Ray Martinez to score.
The Cubans had taken the lead in the eighth on a run-scoring single by Osmai Urrutia, but Cuban closer Pedro Lazo, who came on to start the eighth inning, couldn’t hold the advantage.
Lazo, who got the save in Cuba’s 4-2 victory over Puerto Rico on Sunday, would make up for it by working through the 12th inning, allowing only one Mexican runner to reach scoring position in extra innings to get the win. Lazo’s inclusion on the Cuban roster surprised some Cuba observers, as rumors have swirled around the veteran righthander as a defector possibility.
“I felt stronger the longer I was out there,” said Lazo, a starter in Cuba’s League but usually a closer in international play. “It was nothing new for me.”
Said Velez: “I brought him in with the game tied because he offers me that flexibility. He still starts during our regular season so he was prepared to go five or six innings.”
Cuba’s lineup managed 16 hits, but only a handful wore forcefully struck against a Mexican pitching staff that kept the Cuban hitters off balance.
Mexican starter Gonzalez held them in check over the first five innings. The first of two doubles by Yulieski Gourriel scored Eduardo Paret to give Cuba a 1-0 lead in the third inning, but Gonzalez stood his ground as Mexico recovered to take the lead against Vera.
Mexico tied the game in the fourth when Oscar Robles drew a leadoff walk, took third on a double by Luis Garcia and scored on a ground ball to second base by Roberto Mendez. The Mexicans missed a chance to add a run when Garcia was thrown out at home on a sharply struck one hopper to third by Mario Valenzuela.
Mexico got to Vera again in the sixth inning when Garcia launched Vera’s second pitch over the wall in left field for a two-run home run.
Gonzalez, however, could not keep the Cubans at bay. Gourriel doubled and scored on a two-out single by Ariel Pestano to get a run back in the sixth. Gourriel tied the game in the seventh on a two-out single that scored Paret, who led off the inning by singling, stole second on a pitch out, and reached third when Mexican catcher Noe Munoz skipped his throw into center field.
Mexican closer Isidro Marquez came on in the bottom of the ninth and worked four innings of relief. The Mexicans came undone when he was replaced by Duarte.
Carlos Tavares led off the decisive inning by legging out an infield single, Paret sacrificed him to second base and Michel Enrique followed with another infield single to put runners on the corners. After a Duarte wild pitch allowed Enrique to take second, Duarte intentionally walked Gourriel to load the bases. Duarte got ahead of Cepeda 1-and-2, but threw three straight pitches out of the strike zone to end it.
“I would have preferred a different ending, but it was a very well played game,” said Mexican manager Juan Navarrete. “There was great pitching, a number of outstanding defensive plays and our guys showed a lot of heart.”
Around The Tournament
• Team USA returns to action Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. with a game against Colombia. Lefthander Horacio Ramirez (Braves) is expected to start and go about 60 pitches in a tuneup for an expected start in the crucial semifinal. Team USA has not played since shutting out Nicaragua 7-0 on Friday. The Colombian team doesn’t include any of the 18 players from the South American nation who played in Organized Baseball in 2003. Colombia is coming off a 5-4 victory against Brazil; it lost 6-0 in the tournament opener against host Panama.
• Mexico and Cuba will be Canada’s final two opponents in the preliminary phase of this competition. Mexico will send righthander Rigo Beltran to the mound Tuesday, while Cuba will go with its lone lefthander, Ediel Polma, against the Canadians on Wednesday. Canada’s roster has just four righthanded hitters. The Canadians are 2-0 with a forfeit win (thanks to the Bahamas’ withdrawal) and an 8-5, 11-inning win against Puerto Rico. Canada likely will start righthander Brett Gray (Reds), who pitched well against Cuba in the 2001 World Cup in Taiwan. He lost a 1-0 duel with Jose Contreras, striking out eight in eight innings.
• Puerto Rico started a stretch of four days off, thanks to the tournament’s wrecked schedule. “We certainly didn’t expect this when we started putting this team together,” said Puerto Rico manager Sandy Alomar Sr., who initially wanted to fill half the spots on the 24-man roster with pitchers. “Now we have to worry about giving everyone enough work. Keeping the bullpen sharp will be our biggest challenge.” Puerto Rico will finish 2-2 in pool play with a forfeit win and can finish third at best heading into pool play.
• Panama, which scored 17 runs in its first two games, victories against Colombia and Nicaragua, continued its onslaught against Brazil, winning 11-1 behind righthander Rafael Medina.