by Eric Edwards
March 11, 2006
SAN JUAN, P.R.–For all those Puerto Rico amateur teams that came back from international competitions with their tails tucked between their legs, for all those minor league teams that replaced them and couldn't measure up either, this one might have made up for it.
The best team of professionals Puerto Rico has yet to assemble did to Cuba's Big Red Machine on Friday night what it had been doing to Puerto Rico's scrawny younger siblings for years, pounding them into submission, 12-2 in front of 19,736 witnesses at Hiram Bithorn Stadium on Friday night.
Sure, Puerto Rico was facing the bottom third of Cuba's pitching staff, in a game whose only significance was in determining the order in which Puerto Rico will play the Dominican Republic and Venezuela in the second round.
But it was just the second time any team, amateur or professional, has beaten the Cubans by the mercy rule – Taiwan did it the fist time, 13-1 at the Intercontinental Cup in Belgium in 1983 – an affront that surely won't go over well in Havana, where the Cuban government has set up a big screen TV for fans to watch this 16-nation tournament.
"These things happen. We lost the battle but not the war," Cuba manager Higinio Velez said. "The war starts on Sunday."
Playing for pride–and both sides have more than enough–Friday's game began as if it would be a taut thriller throughout.
Yankees veteran Bernie Williams got Puerto Rico on the board first in the second inning, launching a two-run homer well over the wall in right field off of Luis Borroto, who came on to relieve starter Yulieski Gonzalez after Gonzalez walked three straight batters in the first inning. He almost hit another one in the sixth, but it was snared at the warning track by Osmany Urrutia.
"It was a great feeling," Williams said of the home run and the curtain call he was asked to give afterward. "Playing here is like playing the World Series in March. My mom and my uncle were in the stands and they hadn't seen me play for a long time. Being able to perform as I did was very fortunate."
Cuba responded in its next at bat, putting its first two runners on base for Urrutia, who singled home a run with one out, but the Cubans could manage no more against Puerto Rico starter Dicky Gonzalez.
Gonzalez settled in nicely over his final two innings, setting a standard for the relievers who followed.
Unfortunately for the Cubans, their pitchers were following the standard set by Yulieski Gonzalez. Control issues plagued them all night long.
Puerto Rico's 12 runs came courtesy of just 10 hits and eight free passes. Cuban pitchers also surrendered three home runs, all with runners on base.
"Puerto Rico is a very strong team, but our pitching was off today," said Velez. "We had eight walks. Obviously we did not expect such a huge deficit.
"Things like this happen in Major League Baseball almost every day. Teams beat up each other like this, so it's not out of the ordinary. We get another chance in the second round."
Alex Cintron, now of the White Sox, hit Puerto Rico's second homer with a runner on board to begin the scoring in Puerto Rico's five-run fourth inning, when it sent nine men to the plate.
Alex Cora singled to keep the momentum going, and reliever Maikel Vera walked Ivan Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran to load the bases. Vera was replaced by Dennis Suarez, who walked Eduardo Perez to force in Puerto Rico's fifth run and Jose Cruz Jr., batting righthanded against the next Cuban reliever, lefthander Yosvany Perez, dropped in a single that scored two more.
Puerto Rico continued its onslaught in the fifth inning with RBI singles from Cintron and Yadier Molina before Beltran took an offering from the sixth Cuban pitcher, Jonder Martinez, well over the wall down the line in right field for the final insult.
Cuba nearly avoided application of the mercy rule in the home half of the seventh after Juan Carlos Moreno was hit by a pitch from Jose Santiago and scored when left fielder Eduardo Perez misplayed a Michel Enriquez fly ball in left field into a run-scoring triple.
Fernando Cabrera recovered to get Yuliesky Gourriel to ground out to third base, ending the game.
Puerto Rico's Gonzalez, who allowed two hits an a run over four innings, got the win. Borroto took the loss.
"It always gives you pride to pitch for your country and to see the stands full of people supporting you–it really motivates us to give it our best," said Gonzalez, who pitched in Japan last season.
With a perfect 3-0 record, Puerto Rico will play the Dominican Republic, the top team in Pool D, in Sunday's late game, Venezuela on Monday night at 9 p.m. and Cuba in a rematch on Wednesday.
Cuba faces Venezuela in the early game Wednesday and the Dominican Republic on Tuesday.