Threatening skies held off long enough in Rio on Wednesday to allow completion of one of international baseball’s craziest days of unprecedented action. When Cuba’s rookie reliever Aroldis Chapman (Holguin) closed the door on the final Nicaraguan hitters in the day’s FIFTH game of a marathon day, fans were assured of yet another long-anticipated dream match-up between long-reigning international champion Cuba and yet another edition of the often-underachieving Team USA. Cuba’s slick 4-0 afternoon semifinal victory came mostly on the strength of stellar pitching from starter Elier Sanchez (Camaguey), whose 90-mph fastball kept Nicaraguan hitters at bay for seventh innings. Chapman, an untested lefty making his first appearance in international waters for team Cuba, settled matters in the ninth with an equally tantalizing fastball that reached 96 mph. Sanchez, the earlier victim of a fifth-inning loss of concentration in a disastrous opener versus Panama, was at the top of his game in today’s crucial outing which now sends Cuba back to the Pan Am gold medal game for the tenth straight time, in search of a tenth straight tournament title.
Team USA had a far steeper hill to climb during the course of a rather complicated morning-afternoon twinbill, one which saw the Americans come from behind on both occasions to upend first Brazil, 7-5, and then Mexico, 2-1. The afternoon semifinal victory was keyed by the strong hurling of starter Brian Matusz (6.1 innings) and the solid relief work of Brett Hunter (Pepperdine) and Cody Satterwhite (Mississippi). Mexico and Nicaragua also had to take the field twice, the Mexicans reaching the medal round via a 3-2 morning victory in the completition of their suspended game versus Venezuela, and the Nicaraguans winning their first game of the tournament with a 2-0 upset of the Dominicans. The latter contest was enough to put the surprising Nicaraguans in the final round, thanks to the fewest-runs-allowed tie-breaking rule in effect for these games. It was the first time in the history of major international tournaments (Pan Am Games, Olympics, Intercontinental Cup or World Cup) that the day of semifinal matches opened with six teams still eligible for gold medal action.
If today’s weather-induced five-game format was unique in international baseball annuals, so will be tomorrow’s calendar which will have Cuba and the Americans squaring off in a 9 am gold medal opener, with the bronze medal contest (Mexico-Nicaragua) to follow rather than precede the title match. International tournaments have not always featured a single-game gold medal "finale" but in those tournaments since 1939 that have, a Cuba-USA faceoff has occurred on nine previous occasions–three times in the Pan American Games, twice in the Intercontinental Cup, twice in the IBAF World Cup, and twice in Olympic action (if one here includes Olympic qualifying tournaments). On these nine occasions Cuba has been victorious six times and the USA on only three occasions, including the most recent in Havana last September. In that most recent collision a strong American contingent including 2007 big leaguers Skip Schumaker (Cardinals), Brandon Wood (Angels) and Jerrod Saltalamacchia (Braves) wrested victory from the Cubans in the final face-off of the 2006 Pre-Olympic matches, after both teams had already qualified for a trip to Bejing. If it was a meaningless game as far as Olympic standings went, it was nonetheless the first American victory over a top-level Cuba team in Havana in a full half century.
Results of previous Cuba-USA matches have been as follows. In the 1981 Intercontinental Cup in Edmonton the Americans pulled out a tense 6-5 10-inning win after Pedro Medina’s clutch homer had tied the affair in the late innings. Cuba returned the favor in Indianapolis in 1987 with a 13-9 bashing that avenged an opening-round loss to the host Americans. In 1988 World Cup matches in Rimini (Italy) the Cubans again outlasted their rivals, 4-3, edging a USA squad featuring Robin Ventura, Ben McDonald and Tino Martinez. Intercontinental Cup action in Italy in 1993 saw Cuba coast 9-4, this time on the strength of slugging by Omar Linares and Orestes Kindelan. Cuba’s biggest win, perhaps, came in the 1999 Pan Am Winnipeg finals (5-1), which saw Linares and company rebound from a pair of opening round losses at the hands of the Canadians and Americans. The top-ranked American win came a year later in Sydney when a stellar 4-0 shutout by Ben Sheets earned Team USA its only Olympic title. In November 2001 Cuba turned back the Americans 5-3 in the finale of the Taipei-based World Cup XXXIV. Cuba won again in the 2003 Pan Am Games staged by the Dominicans, edging the USA 3-1 on the strength of brilliant pitching by Norge Vera (also winner over the Orioles in Baltimore in 1999) and the slugging (homer and double) of veteran catcher Ariel Pestano. And last summer the Americans pulled away 8-5 in the late innings of the Olympic Qualifier at Estadio Latinoamericano on the strength of late homers by Brandon Wood and Jerrod Saltalamacchia.
Tomorrow’s showdown will represent the third straight Pan American Games finale pairing international baseball’s most celebrated rivals. This author will be glued to every pitch of the Cuban Radio Rebelde on-line play-by-play coverage as another dramatic chapter of the long and celebrated rivalry now promises to be written.