Cuba, Japan Set For Monday’s Classic Finale

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.

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.

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

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.

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.”

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.”

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.