Gourriel the difference as Cuba holds off Panama

by Eric Edwards
March 8, 2006

SAN JUAN, P.R.–An amateur, maybe, but Yuliesky Gourriel was money in the bank on Wednesday.

Exactly how much he is worth on he open market we may never know, but there was no questioning the 21-year-old slugger’s value to the Cuban national team in its 8-6 tug-of-war victory over a hard-luck Panama team.

Gourriel was in the middle of every Cuban rally. He put his team ahead, 2-1 with a run-scoring double in the third inning, pulled them even at 4-4 with a bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the seventh and lined a two-run home with two outs in the top of the ninth that gave Cuba a 6-4 lead.

He didn’t put the ball in play in the 11th inning – Panama reliever Jorge Cortes made sure of that – but the walk he worked put Michel Enriquez in scoring position for pinch-hitter Yoandy Garlobo, who delivered the decisive blow, a line single that scored Enriquez.

“If he’s not in their lineup they don’t win the game,” said Panama’s starting pitcher, Orioles lefthander Bruce Chen. “Every time he was at the plate he made something happen for them . . . He would make a very good major league player. I hope he gets that opportunity.”

That’s unlikely given Gourriel’s close family ties in Cuba. His father Lourdes, a former national team player, is the manager of his team in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, Sancti Spiritus, and “the reason I am what I am in baseball,” said Gourriel, who finished Wednesday’s game with three hits, four RBI and two runs scored.

That was barely enough for a Cuban pitching staff that didn’t live up to its billing.

The team’s ace, Pedro Luis Lazo, was tagged for four hits and a run over 1 1/3 innings, bailed out of further trouble by the team’s former number-two starter Vicyohandry Odelin. Odelin was unhittable until the sixth when Brewers all-star Carlos Lee singled, former Oriole Sherman Obando walked and ex-Yankees phenom Ruben Rivera launched a three-run home run off of him to begin the teams’ test of wills.

Cuba would rally to tie the game in its next at bat, took the lead on Gourriel’s home run in the ninth, then barely survived Panama’s response in the bottom of the inning.

Audes De Leon drew a walk, Damaso Espino singled and Cuban pitcher Yuneski Maya threw late to third base trying for the force out on a sacrifice bunt by Orlando Miller to load the bases with no outs. Maya struck out Freddy Herrera, but Olmedo Saenz dropped a single into center field to make it 6-5, and Panama tied it when Maya hit Early Agnoly on the hand with a pitch, one of seven batters to suffer that fate in the game. Rivera could have won it for Panama if he had just stood still, but instead jumped out of the way of a Maya fastball that was headed for his shoulder. Two pitches later he popped out to second base to end the inning.

“We had opportunities to win the game, but it didn’t happen,” said Chen, who yielded four hits and two runs over five innings. “Cuba deserves some credit. They kept scoring and scoring and putting us in difficult positions.”

Had Mariano Rivera been here, the outcome might have been different, but down the stretch Panama manager Anibal Reluz was forced to stick with Class A Braves farmhand Manuel Acosta, who worked 2 1/3 innings against Puerto Rico on Tuesday and three more against Cuba.

“If Mariano was there to shut them down for a couple of innings, our offense would have won it,” Chen said. “But he made his decision and we have to compete with who we have.”

Baring a miracle, the loss eliminates Panama (0-2) from the competition, while Cuba (1-0) heads into a matchup Thursday night against the Netherlands.

“It’s so important to win that first game,” Gourriel said. “We can relax a little more now.”

While proud of how well they stood their ground, the Panamanians will surely lament what could have been. They went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position in a 2-1 loss to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, and scored just once after loading the bases in each of the first two innings against Cuba.

“We knew this was going to be the toughest competition we’ve ever faced, tougher than any Olympics or World (Cup),” Cuban manager Higinio Velez said. “That’s why we worked so hard preparing for this tournament.”