Cuba Advances to World Baseball Classic Semifinal

Image credit: Cuba beat Australia to advance in the World Baseball Classic (Getty Images)

By the lofty standards of Cuban international baseball history, this is not a Cuban team to remember.

There is no pitcher who compares to the success of Pedro Lazo, Cuba’s current pitching coach and living legend. Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert are not Omar Linares or Yuli Gurriel.

But that doesn’t matter, because this Cuban team has made its own spot in Cuban baseball history. Cuba is returning to the World Baseball Classic semifinals for the first time since 2006 after beating Australia 4-3 on Wednesday in the quarterfinals, marking a return to the final four for the team that was international baseball royalty for so many years.

Since the winner would have four days until it played again after traveling from Japan to the United States, the format allowed both teams to approach this one game, win-or-go-home quarterfinal with an all hands on deck approach. That suited Cuba better than Australia because it had a deeper pitching staff of power arms. Cuba’s biggest strength as a pitching staff is that it had a trio of pitchers who were among the better relievers in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league in 2022. Cuba was able to throw all three of them—Yariel Rodriguez, Livan Moinelo and Raidel Martinez—at Australia while mixing in Roenis Elias as well. 

Rodriguez started the game for Cuba, but Australia jumped out to an early lead against him on a Rixon Wingrove RBI single in the second. Cuba quickly answered as Roel Santos walked, Yoan Moncada doubled and Luis Robert scored Santos on a ground out in the third.

Cuba then took a lead it would never relinquish in the fifth inning, once again with the top of the lineup leading the way. Santos singled, Moncada walked and Robert was hit by a pitch to load the bases with no outs. Alfredo Despaigne drove in Santos on a sacrifice fly and Yoelkis Guibert drove in Moncada and Robert on an RBI single, giving Cuba a 4-1 lead.

Wingrove cut the lead to one with a two-run home run off of Elias in the sixth inning, but Cuba’s bullpen shut the door after that. Moinelo threw a scoreless eighth inning and Martinez struck out two of the three batters he faced in the ninth, including Australia cleanup hitter Darryl George, to end the game.

Rodriguez was the only Cuban pitcher to throw more than 50 pitches in the game, so the rest of the staff will be available by WBC pitcher rest rules for Sunday’s semifinal.

For Australia, it’s still a very admirable result as the team reached the second round for the first time in World Baseball Classic history. For Cuba, a second round loss would have been an acceptable result, but one that just reinforced its descent from the top rungs of international baseball.

This is the first time that Cuba has mixed MLB players with players who have stayed in Cuba to play in Serie Nacional as well as players who have gone to play in Japan. That did make a dramatic difference in the depth of Cuba’s roster.

The pair of White Sox’s in the lineup, Moncada and Robert, scored two of Cuba’s four runs. The Mariners’ Elias pitched two innings while the A’s Miguel Romero pitched 1.2 scoreless innings.

And by blending together a roster of players who are starring in Cuba, Japan and the U.S., Cuba has its greatest international success in years. The team that has won three of six Olympic gold medals in baseball as well as two silvers is back among the world’s final four.

“The Cuban baseball fans are so emotional right now. They have been waiting for a long time at the moment,” Cuban manager Armando Johnson said. “Everybody loves baseball so much and they cheered us so well. So this is the new page, new chapter that we could go forward. This team, we had a lot of hard workouts and we succeed in moving forward to the semifinals.”

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