SAN JUAN, P.R.--Cuba's big red mystique grew even larger on Wednesday night.
The reigning kings of international baseball proved they belong on the biggest stage, avenging their second-ever knockout loss by scoring an improbable 4-3 victory over Puerto Rico at the inaugural World Baseball Classic, assuring their passage into the final four of this 16-country tournament.
Just three games ago the Cubans were crying mercy to Puerto Rico, getting pelted off the field after seven innings, 12-2.
This time, however, Cuba had some of its top pitchers in reserve, and the rematch was every bit as compelling as Cuban manager Higinio Velez promised it would be - although he wouldn't be around the game's dramatic final act.
Cuba survived a furious rally that included two disputed calls in the field against them, Carlos Delgado's Willis Reed moment in the eighth inning and the bases-loaded, one out jam Delgado's pinch-hit single helped produce later in the inning.
"What I said [last Friday] proved to be an omen," Velez said. "When we got knocked out I said that was just one battle, that the war had yet to begin. No one believed we could do it, but we know the quality of Cuban baseball. We knew we could do it."
Down 4-1, Puerto Rico rallied with two runs in a long, argument-filled seventh inning. With runners on first-and-third and no outs, pinch-hitter Ricky Ledee hit a slow roller to second base. As Puerto Rico's second run scored, second baseman Yuliesky Gourriel fielded the ball and threw to shortstop Eduardo Paret for the apparent force play, but second-base umpire James Hoye ruled (correctly, replays would show) that Paret's foot was off the base when he caught the ball.
Velez protested vehemently, and when he wouldn't relent, was tossed from the game by Hoye.
"I didn't see the replays, but I can't fault the umpires. I'm sure they called them the way they saw them," Velez said. "It's not the first time a manager argues a call and it's not the first time a manager gets kicked out of a game."
Bernie Williams, whose first-inning homer had accounted for Puerto Rico's first run, hit into a double play, pushing Alex Cintron to third. Ivan Rodriguez then drew a walk, and Carlos Beltran followed with a single to center field that scored Ledee. When center fielder Carlos Tabares bobbled the ball Rodriguez tried to score the tying run all the way from first, but the relay throw from Gourriel beat him to the plate and Cuban catcher Ariel Pestano applied the tag just in time.
"That was the play of the game," said Pestano. "Gourriel has a real strong arm and he made a good throw. If we don't get him Puerto Rico probably wins."
With the Cubans wearing the all-red uniforms they reserve for only their biggest games, it quickly became evident that this wasn't going to be anything like Friday night.
Puerto Rico starter Dicky Gonzalez, dominant in his first start against the Cubans on Friday, needed 31 pitches to get through the first inning, walking Paret and Michel Enriquez to open the game.
Velez started the runners on consecutive pitches, the second time avoiding a double play on a ground out to third base by Gourriel. The next batter, Ariel Borrero grounded out to Alex Cora at second base, plating Cuba's first run.
Puerto Rico needed little time getting it back. Leadoff man Williams got a fat 3-1 offering from Cuban starter Osmani Romero and sent it over the right field fence to tie the game at 1-1.
Cuba broke on top in the fourth inning, loading the bases against Gonzalez on singles by Osmani Urrutia and Yoandy Garlobo and a walk to Alexei Ramirez.
Puerto Rico manager Jose Oquendo then turned to Jose Santiago, who threw two quick strikes to Eduardo Paret before hitting him in the leg with his fifth pitch, forcing in a run.
Santiago seemed poised to avoid further damage when Enriquez grounded into a force play at home for the second out. But Cintron, after making a nice backhand stop on a ground ball by Gourriel, threw wide of Alex Cora trying to get the force out at second base, and two more runs scored.
They would prove to be the difference as Puerto Rico, which put at least one runner on base in every inning but the ninth, blew a trio of particularly good opportunities over its final six at-bats.
The Puerto Ricans stranded runners at second and third in both the fourth and fifth innings, and loaded the bases against Vichoandry Odelin in the eighth on a single by Cruz, a pinch-hit single by Delgado (in his first appearance of the Classic) and a controversial error on first baseman Joan Carlos Pedroso.
On that play, it appeared that Odelin had thrown Jose Valentin out at first base on a slow dribbler to the left of the mound. But first base umpire Rob Drake ruled that Cuban first baseman Pedroso bobbled the ball, prompting another strong protest from the Cubans.
All the fuss didn't matter, it turned out, when Cintron, desperate to atone for his earlier mistake, grounded into a rally-killing double play.
"Alex is a line drive hitter. He hit the ball hard, but right at Paret," Oquendo said. "You've got to feel for him."
It was the last chance Puerto Rico would get. In the ninth, Odelin set down Ruben Gotay (on a liner back to the mound), Williams (on a foul out) and Rodriguez (on a game-ending strikeout) in order, picking up the save and sending Cuba on its way to a Saturday date with the Dominican Republic at Petco Park.
"For me it's back to the drawing board," Velez said. "We have to again figure out a strategy for a team that beat us the first time we faced them."
Gonzalez, who allowed four hits and four runs, just two earned, over 3 1/3 innings took the loss. Romero allowed three hits and a run over four innings to get the win.