SAN JUAN, P.R.--Who says Castro's astros can't keep up with big leaguers?
Two days after getting pulverized by Puerto Rico, the Cuban national team did likewise to one of the pre-tournament favorites, pounding Venezuela, 7-2 Sunday at Hiram Bithorn Stadium to break quickly from the gate in Round Two of the World Baseball Classic.
"After the loss to Puerto Rico, people were saying that Cuba didn't have the pitching, that we couldn't keep up with major league players," Cuban manager Higinio Velez said. "My response to them was wait until (Sunday) to make your evaluation."
The victory puts Cuba in the driver's seat in the early going headed into its matchup Monday with the Dominican Republic. The loss puts Venezuela in dire straits. The Venezuelans must beat Puerto Rico on Monday and avenge its first-round loss to the Dominican Republic on Tuesday to have any realistic chance of moving on to the semifinals.
"Our guys aren't happy with the way they are playing," said Venezuelan manager Luis Sojo. "We're not swinging the bat very well, not getting the big hits when we need them."
Turning to two of its best pitchers against Venezuela, the Cubans, whose lack of pitching depth could still come back to haunt them later in the second round, looked like a different team on Sunday.
Cuban starter Yadel Marti held Venezuela without a hit over the first four innings. When he got in trouble in the fifth, Pedro Luis Lazo was there to bail him out, escaping a bases-loaded, no outs jam before cruising through the final four innings to get the save.
Velez's decision to start Marti, a finesse pitcher who relies on location and changing speeds, and bring on the power pitching Lazo at the midway point, proved to be a stroke of genius. Venezuela's hitters were off balance against Marti, and when they began to figure him out, on came Lazo and his 95 mph fastball and heavy splitter.
"We were surprised. We thought they were going to start Lazo, or bring him on to close the game," Sojo said. "It was a brilliant move by their manager to bring him on when he did."
With his team leading 1-0, Velez made the move after Magglio Ordonez and Ramon Hernandez began the Venezuelan fifth with consecutive singles. Lazo helped make his task more difficult when he failed to field a sacrifice bunt by Edgardo Alfonso, loading the bases. But he got Endy Chavez and Omar Vizquel to fly out to shallow left field and struck out Carlos Guillen to end the threat.
"That was the deciding moment of the game," said Velez. "Playing in so many Olympic games we're used to tense situations, especially Lazo, our most veteran pitcher."
The Cuban offense took advantage of two lucky bounces in the sixth inning--both involving Venezuelan shortstop Vizquel--to break the game open.
The first came after Michel Enriquez had already singled home Eduardo Paret for a 2-0 lead. Osmani Urrutia dribbled a two-hopper in front of second base that rolled up the hard-charging Vizquel's chest and into his shirt, putting runners at first-and-second with one out. Yoandy Garlobo then hit into what should have been an inning-ending double play, but the ball fell out of Vizquel's glove as he tried to make the relay throw.
The next batter, Frederich Cepeda, then launched a three-run home run over the left field wall off of Giovanni Carrara, and Ariel Pestano followed with a solo shot.
"We got a couple of bad breaks," said Sojo. "One ball ends up in (Vizquel's) shirt and the other slips out of his hands, then comes the home runs. The game got out of hand after that."
Cuba tacked on another run in the seventh on an RBI single by Urrutia. Venezuela got on the board in the bottom of the inning on a two-run home run by Endy Chavez, who called Bithorn Stadium home for 22 games in 2003 and 2004 when he played for the Montreal Expos.
Venezuelan ace Johan Santana allowed one run--on a run-scoring single by Angel Borrero in the second inning--over five innings and took the loss.
Venezuela will send Cubs righthander Carlos Zambrano to the mound against Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico manager Jose Oquendo will counter with Joel Pineiro.