Cuba Stuns A Listless Venezuela

SAN JUAN, P.R.–Who says Castro’s astros can’t keep up with big leaguers?

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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.