For all its near-boring domination of international tourrnament competitions over the past fifty-plus years, Team Cuba somehow always seems to find a way to trip and stumble (before usually recovering with a vengeance) during Pan American Games competitions. A 7-1 thrashing at the hands of Mexico in the opening round at Santo Domingo in 2003 was the only blemish on en route to the country’s 11th gold medal in 13 Pan Am tournaments; yet at the moment it sent shock waves throughout Havana and its environs. In 1999, in Winnipeg, the Cubans sleepwalked through the opening round while losing to Team USA as well as host Canada, before rebounding in dramatic to beat both rivales in the crucial medal round. And this year’s event opened with a bang when the favored Red Machine was rudely stunned by Panama in yesterday’s lidlifter, a loss which left the Cubans desperately needing consecutive victories over Mexico and Venezuela to make it into the championship round.
On Sunday, however, it was back to business as usual for the Cubans, who completed their first test successfully with a 8-1 thrashing of outmanned Mexico. Today’s main hero was starter Adiel Palma (Cienfuegos), who stuck out 10 and gave up a mere four hits in six solid innings. Palma (pictured below) received plenty of offense support from Yulieski Gourriel, who smashed a solo shot in the third, and first sacker Alex Mayetta, who homered in the second and again in the ninth. The tournament favorites salted the game away with five markers in the top of the ninth and finally looked every bit like the international powerhouse expected, and not the apparent pretenders that seemed to provide such a lackluster performance only 24 hours earlier.
In the day’s other tournament action, Team USA rang up an opening victory with a 5-1 cake walk versus the Dominican Republic, mostly on the strength of five-hit pitching from University of California sophomore Tyson Ross. Panama won again, this time 4-2 over Venezuela. Host Brazil (with four U.S. minor leaguers and one Japanese leaguer on its roster) thrilled the locals with a 1-0 blanking of Nicaragua. In a late game on Saturday, not reported in yesterday’s summary, Mexico and Venezuela fought to a 2-2 deadlock that was suspended after nine frames due to encroaching darkness. The Mexico-Venezuela game provided a bizarre footnote to a chaotic opening day at Rock City Stadium, this being the first contest ever called on account of darkness in the half-century history of Pan Am Games action.
The short six-day tournament continues tomorrow with highlight games featuring Cuba versus Venezuela and Team USA versus Nicaragua. The Americans seem a sure bet to reach the semifinals, playing in the acknowledged weak division in which only Brazil might be considered a potential challenger. Cuba needs only to overcome slumping Venezuela to continue its march toward a showdown rematch with Panama and a potential championship faceoff with young but talented Team USA.