Vaunted Team Cuba, which has not lost a Pan American Games title on the field since 1967 (Winnipeg), and which has also not dropped a single level-one international game to heated rival Panama, fell with a loud thud in the opening game of this year’s Pan Am baseball competitions today in Rio de Janeiro. The final was 4-3 in a game which saw the Panamanians explode for all four markers in the fifth frame against inexperienced Cuban starter Elier Sanchez (Camaguey), then hang on in Rock City Stadium behind excellent relief work from the bullpen trio of Rolando Herrera, Elier Gomez and Ricardo Montilla. The perhaps over-confident Cubans had several late-inning chances to mount a comeback but stumbled twice due to uncharacteristic baserunning errors and untimely hitting.
Cuba’s main window of opportunity came to nothing in the top of the seventh when a poor baserunning decision by veteran catcher Ariel Pestano (who was gunned down at second trying to stretch a single to a double) and a tame doubleplay grounder off the bat of team captain Eduardo Paret snuffed out a possible resurgence. In the ninth, Yoandry Urgelles launched a second potential rally with a sharp single to right, but the game then promptly ended when Pestano followed with another perfect doubleplay roller to short.
The loss was only the fifth individual game setback for Cuba in the eight tournaments since 1967, but a most costly one in this year’s shortened tournament qualifying format. The many-times champions must now defeat Mexico (Sunday) and Venezuela (Monday) without a second stumble in order the reach the semifinals and thus avoid finishing out of medal contention in this event for the first time since 1959. One great irony of the Cubans’ opening-day loss was the fact that Team Panama is currently managed by on-loan former national team skipper Alfonso Urquiola, who directed Cuba’s gold medal victory in the 1999 Winnipeg Pan Am Games and who also managed Team Cuba in its two showdown exhibitions with the Baltimore Orioles that same spring.
Commenting to a shocked Cuban press corps after the unexpected defeat, current Team Cuba skipper Rey Anglada issued the following warning: "I will assure you of something. We will overcome this initial blow, and although we are playing in obviously the toughest group of the competition, there is no doubt that we will reach the finals and seek the championship trophy, just as the entire nation is expecting." Anglada was the subject of much criticism in the Cuban press accounts of the game for his decision to go with relative newcomer Elier Sanchez as the opening-round starter, rather than relying on a more veteran starter like Norge Vera, Adiel Palma or Norberto Gonzalez.
In the second major development of a truly bizarre opening day of competitions in Rio, Team USA’s evening match versus the Dominican Republic was postponed due to a failure in the Rock City Stadium lightning system, a catastrophe which has resulted in the cancellation of all night competitions at the venue. USA BASEBALL reported on its own website earlier today that the American-Dominican game had been rescheduled for "security" reasons, but the official tournament website is reporting that difficulties with the stadium generator system is to blame for the postponement of future night games. All in all, it was the most surprising of opening days for the Pan Am XV baseball competitions. But such unpredictability has always been one of the true beauties of the international version of the diamond sport.