Cuba, Japan set for Monday’s Classic finale

by Alan Schwarz
March 19, 2006

SAN DIEGO–Throughout Cuba’s generation-long dominance of international baseball, from every win at the World Cup and Pan American Games to several Olympic golds, detractors have always harrumphed a grudging reminder: The Cubans still hadn’t beaten the best players in the world.

Now they have.

With a thrilling 3-1 win over the Dominican Republic in Saturday’s first semifinal of the World Baseball Classic, Cuba announced that it could beat the best from any country and any league. The Cubans defeated a Dominican team that started a reigning Cy Young Award winner (Bartolo Colon), had former MVPs batting second and third (Miguel Tejada and Albert Pujols) and will be paid more than $60 million this year to play major league baseball. Meanwhile the Cubans play only for national pride–which understandably runneth over after Saturday’s win.

“All I can say is look at the quality of our players,” Cuba manager Higino Velez said through an interpreter. “The quality and quantity of players in Cuba is something that you have to take a look at. You can draw your own conclusions.”

Cuba will attempt to conclude the inaugural World Baseball Classic on Monday night by beating Japan, which defeated WBC cinderella Korea 6-0 in the other semifinal. Korea had delighted Classic onlookers by winning its first six games with outstanding defense and fundamentals, but their run came to an end on a cold and drizzly San Diego night.

The long afternoon and evening of America’s national pastime, held on American soil, featured not one player who was born in America itself–yet more than 80,000 Petco Park fans shrieked and yelped through a day no one present will soon forget. And it could not go unnoticed that the final three teams alive in the WBC–Cuba, Japan and Korea–were the contenders least populated by players from the American major leagues.

Petco could very well become Cuba’s long-awaited proving ground. In winning almost every prominent international tournament since the 1970s, Cuba usually had a glaring advantage: Because its best players were always available while those from other countries were otherwise committed to either the United States or Japanese major leagues, well-tuned Cuba clubs typically rolled over hodge-podges of other nations’ best amateurs or, recently, minor leaguers. But as Yadel Marti and Pedro Lazo retired one Dominican slugger after the other, it grew increasingly clear that 30 years of doubts were being answered in one afternoon.

Lazo was particularly dazzling. While Marti tentatively nibbled through his 4 1/3 scoreless innings, the beefy righthander came on with one out in the fifth and gobbled up the Dominicans. He yielded just one unearned run the rest of the way, and upon retiring the final Dominican batter was mobbed atop the mound by his delirious Cuban teammates.

It was yet another big performance from the 32-year-old Lazo, who pitched on the Cubans’ 1996 and 2004 Olympic gold medalists, and has the most career victories (209) of any active pitcher in the relatively mysterious Cuban league, Serie Nacional.

“I can see why Cuba dominated international competition,” Dominican Republic manager Manny Acta said. “Their pitching is legit. They can throw guys out there every single day that can pitch in the big leagues . . . That’s why they beat us.”

Added Pujols, whose timing was clearly disrupted by Marti’s offspeed pitches, “If you look at our lineup, it’s not really easy to pitch when you have myself, David Ortiz, Tejada . . . from the first hitter to the last hitter they can hit better than any other team. That’s the way it goes.”

Proving themselves by beating more famous major leaguers has been an obvious goal throughout the tournament for Cuba–a team that some had believed Fidel Castro would not even send to the Classic for fear of an early and embarrassing exit. Velez raised some eyebrows by claiming his team was “made of men and not names,” clearly a shot at the more celebrated (but less successful here) big leaguers.

And catcher Ariel Pestano appeared to tweak the absent United States when he said after Saturday’s game, “We’d like to tell all the people of the Americas that we are here playing, first of all, as Cubans, but we’re representing Latin America here, and we’ll do everything possible . . . (to) win on behalf of Latin America.”

Even in defeat, Acta still wasn’t ready to anoint Cuba as the best team from the Caribbean. He noted that his Dominicans beat Cuba 7-3 in the previous round on Monday and said, “You could have played 10 games against them, and who knows, maybe we could have won seven of them. But it’s a one-game type of thing.” And while praising Lazo’s effort, Acta stopped short of calling him major league all-star caliber, instead likening him to “a quality setup man on a first-division (major league) club, and probably a good closer on an average ballclub.”

“Their baseball is legit,” Acta said. “They’re not in the big leagues because of their political situation–not because they don’t have the quality. Most of these guys, we really don’t know how good they’d be in the big leagues, because they don’t get the chance. But obviously they can play.”

The same is now being said about Japan, which last night started only one player (Ichiro Suzuki) with any major league experience. Yet righthander Koji Uehara delivered one of recent international baseball’s most memorable performances, holding Korea scoreless before an eighth-inning rain delay on just three hits, throwing 68 of his 86 pitches for strikes.

Both WBC finalists have outlasted teams of major league all-stars–Japan several days ago as the United States slinked away in shame, and Cuba on Saturday with the Dominican Republic. Cuba’s Marti proudly declared, “This is Cuban sport being played at its best.” And after all these years, against the best, too.

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