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WBC Notebook: Cuba-Puerto Rico game should be charged
Compiled by John Manuel
SAN JUAN, P.R.--Get ready for bedlam.
The game between Cuba and Puerto Rico scheduled for Friday might not mean much in the standings, as both teams have qualified for the World Baseball Classic's second round, but the intensity level--in the stands as much as on the field--promises to be off the charts.
The last time the Cubans played at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, in an exhibition game against the winter league San Juan Metros in December 1993 - it was a game for the ages. More than 22,000 fans jammed the stadium, overflowing into the isles to watch the Cubans play for the first time against a team with major league players.
A plane - rented by an anti-Castro Cuban group - circled the playing field from inning one through nine, flying a banner with a phone number for potential defectors to call.
The stands were awash with Cuban. U.S. and Puerto Rican flags, political signs - both pro and anti Castro - and a tension that bubbled over into fistfights on a couple of occasions.
On the field, the son of a Cuban exile, Carlos Reyes, took the mound for the San Juan team. Behind him were big leaguers Edgar Martinez, Carlos Baerga, Javier Lopez, Ryan Thompson and Lee Tinsley.
Cuba, at the height of its baseball potency, responded with a squad that included Omar Linares at third base, German Mesa at shortstop, Antonio Pacheco at second base and Orestes Kindelan at first base. In the outfield Victor Mesa, Lourdes Gourriel and Ermidelio Urrutia. Most of those players were on Cuba's Olympic gold medallists in 1992 and '96.
The team's ace, Lazaro Valle took the mound for a game that mirrored the tension in the stands.
A back-and-forth battle was tied at two through eight innings. Then German Mesa laid down a suicide squeeze in the ninth inning that plated the go ahead run for Cuba. San Juan put a runner on in the ninth against Cuba's stud-closer, Omar Ajete, but was down to its final out when Javier Lopez shook the walls, lining a walk-off home run just inside the left-field foul pole.
Politically, mot much has changed since then. Fidel Castro still rules Cuba and the U.S. embargo against that island nation remains in place. Cuban baseball is still a mystery to those outside.
The world of baseball, however, is considerably different.
Professionals are now allowed in tournaments previously open only to amateurs, and the World Baseball Classic, a project 12 years in the making, kicked off last week in Tokyo, bringing us to what awaits tonight - a rematch 13 years in the making.
Taking the mound for Puerto Rico will be journeyman minor league righthander Dicky Gonzalez, who is 3-2, 5.02 in 66 career big league innings with the Mets and Devil Rays. The Cuban starter will likely remain a mystery until 20 minutes before game time, a strategy typical of manager Higinio Velez.
Between the lines will be the best players the two countries could field. The stands will again be packed - the game was sold out less than four days after tickets went on sale in January.
On Wednesday, the anti-Castro groups protested outside the stadium as the Cuban team warmed up inside. Many of those same activists are expected to be inside the stadium tonight.
Let the bedlam begin.
Japan, Korea Fall In Tuneups
R.A. Dickey and John Danks combined to allow one run over six innings to lead the Texas Rangers to a 8-4 victory against Japan in a World Baseball Classic exhibition game held Thursday night at Surprise Stadium.
Japan gave ace Daisuke Matsuzaka the start, a day after beating the Mariners 6-5 in a tuneup game, and Matsuzaka got no decision with four innings of two-hit ball. He allowed one unearned run. Lefthander Tsuyoshi Wada, generally considered Japan's No. 3 starter, got the loss, giving up three hits and three runs (two earned) in two innings.
Japan finished second in Pool A and is preparing for second round play in the inaugural World Baseball Classic next week in Anaheim.
For the Rangers, second baseman Ian Kinsler finished 2-for-3 with a double and RBI. Shortstop Joaquin Arias was also 2-for-3 with a run scored and RBI. Minor league outfielder Luke Grayson had a two-run single as part of the four-run four-run seventh.
Dickey scattered five hits and struck out three in three innings. He gave way to Danks, who after giving up a leadoff single in the fourth, retired the next eight batters and faced the minimum nine batters. He earned the win giving up one hit and striking out one in three scoreless innings. Scott Feldman added a scoreless inning of work.
Meanwhile, Korea-winner of Pool A with an upset 3-2 win against Japan-lost to the Royals 7-4 in the Cactus League. Each team had nine hits as Korea gave big leaguers Chan Ho Park, Jae Seo and Byung-Hyun Kim some work on the mound.
• Dominican Republic manager Manny Acta tweaked his lineup for the game against Italy, as Jose Reyes and Placido Polanco started at shortstop and second base, replacing Miguel Tejada and Alfonso Soriano, who started against Venezuela. He also started Wily Mo Pena in right and had Juan Encarnacion in center, with Wily Taveras being pushed to the bench. Pirates farmhand Ronny Paulino started at catcher over Alberto Castillo.
"We wanted to give every player a chance to participate and feel as though we have enough depth to do so," Acta said. "In the next round, that will probably change."
• The biggest ovation of the DR-Italy game came in the bottom of the seventh when Luis Polonia pinch-hit for Pena. The roar began before he was announced as the Dominican fans on the third-base side could see him getting ready to hit in the first-base dugout. The 42-year-old had a career line of .293 /.342 /.383 in a 12-year career spent mostly with the Athletics, Angels and Yankees. He also is one of the few Dominican pros with international experience, heading up the nation's team during the 2003 Pan American Games.
• Alessandro Maestri had his second straight rough outing. The Italian righthander worked only 1/3 of an inning and allowed a solo homer to Alou in the seventh. Against Venezuela, he entered with the bases loaded in the seventh and threw a wild pitch to allow Venezuela's final run to score. The 20-year-old recently signed with the Cubs and is the first player from the Italian Baseball Academy to sign with a big league organization.
Contributing: Matt Meyers