No "franchise" in baseball’s long history–whether we are talking about the Mudville Sluggers of the Pottstown Little League or the vaunted New York Yankees of the professional American League–has ever found more ways to consistently and miraculously win just about every crucial championship-round contest it plays than has the gutsy Cuban National team. And this is a tradition that stretches over more than a half-century of world class international tournament action. Today was no exception as this year’s fortune-blessed Cuban Red Machine fought off an inspired Venezuelan challenger for a 4-3 victory that guaranteed a first place finish in Group B and thus a spot in the semi-finals of this year’s Pan American Games being staged in Rio’s Rock City Sports Complex. It was quite a comeback for the Cubans, who needed both back-to-back victories over Mexico and the Venezuelans, plus a little help from the Mexicans (9-0 shutout victors today versus the suddenly punchless Panamanians), to survive Saturday’s opening round defeat at the hands of upstart Panama. Cuba now seems headed toward a destined showdown gold medal clash with arch-rival Team USA (8-4 winners today over hapless Nicaragua) in Thursday’s championship finale.
Cuba’s lineup, stacked with such vaunted sluggers and WBC veterans as Freddie Cepeda, Yulieski Gourriel, Alexei Ramirez, Ariel Pestano, Eduardo Paret and Osmani Urrutia, has been surpisingly impotent throughout the tournament’s first round, and today was no exception. Cuba’s opening run game in the first without benefit of a single hit (Gourriel walked, raced to third on a pitcher’s pickoff throwing error, and then scored on a wild pitch); two go-ahead runs in the third came as a result of a sac fly by Gourriel and yet another wild pitch. The Cubans salted away victory in the bottom of the seventh when Cepeda (sofar hitless in three days) tapped as weak infield grounder that forced Alex Mayeta at second but brought home the speedy Giorvis Duvergel. Not a single Cuban run was knocked home by any of the victor’s six hits (all relatively tame singles). Yet it was enough to earn victory, thanks to a strong six-innings of starting pitching by veteran Norge Vera (who first came on the international scene back in 1999 with his stellar long relief outing versus the Baltimore Orioles) and a second straight day of brilliant three-inning relief work by the incomparable Pedro Luis Lazo (pictured to the left).
The most shocking event of the tournament’s third day had to be Panama’s complete collapse in a 9-0 shellacking at the hands of Mexico. The loss left Panama deadlocked with Cuba at 2-1, but the nine Mexican tallies meant that the tournament tie-breaker procedure (fewest runs allowed) left Panama in slot two of Group B. Team Panama boasts a remarkable recent history of such inexplicable acts of self-destruction. In the 2005 World Cup in Rotterdam the Panamanians fell apart both defensively and emotionally in a 15-2 semifinals clobbering at the hands of the Cubans (though they did rebound to capture a bronze medal a day later versus the Netherlands). Two years earlier at the 2003 Havana World Cup they fought Cuba tooth-and-nail in the finale until two late homers by Freddie Cepeda spelled destruction. In last summer’s Pre-Olympic tournament in Havana a nearly identical Panamanian line-up jumped all over Cuba 5-0 in the first two innings of an opening round game, yet couldn’t hang on in the late frames and finally lost on the strength of Alexei Ramirez’s solo blast in the seventh. And worst of all, Panama was one pitch away from knocking Cuba out of contention in the opening round of the WBC in San Juan when Ruben Rivera unaccountably dove out of the way of a soft pitch (tossed by Yunieski Maya) about to graze his shoulder that would have forced home the winning run with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. A switch from Anibal Reluz to the seasoned Cuban Alfonso Urquiola hasn’t seemed to alter Panama’s ill-fortunes when it comes to fast starts resulting only in dramatic tournament-ending flameouts.
Team USA, after thrashing a weak Nicaraguan nine, seems poised to finish undefeated in Group A, which would mean a USA-Panama semifinal on Wednesday. The Dominican Republic, buoyed by today’s 14-2 8-inning knockout of host Brazil, is the likely runnerup in Group A and thus also the likely opponent for the Cubans in Thursday’s second semifinal match. The almost-Hollywood-scripted scenario would provide yet another Cuba-USA gold medal showdown, a contest which has fallen to the Cubans in the great majority of cases down through the decades. In recent years, however, Team USA has twice upset the Cubans in featured gold medal shootouts–first in the 2000 Sydney Olympics ("the Ben Sheets game"), and more recently in last-summer’s Havana-based Olympic Qualifying tournament. Though few in the USA will be aware it is even happening, millions of Cubans will hang on every pitch of the anticipated "true world championship" game that now promises to be the highlight of international baseball’s topsy-turvy summer 2007 season.