The first week of action during World Cup XXXVII in Taipei and Taichung has provided enough thrills, heroes and nail-biting action to keep even the most hardened baseball fan on the edge of his or her seat. Those who are not sacrificing their sleep (translate this as 99.999% of the North American population of MLB fans) to watch the video feed of games being delivered via the internet at 11pm and 5am EST daily are thereby missing out on one of the year’s biggest treats of pure diamond sport entertainment. So far the tournament has been pretty much all Cuba, as the nine-time defending World Cup champions somehow miraculously survived a near upset against strong Australia via the last-moment heroics of sluggers Freddie Cepeda and Osmani Urrutia, then have easily run the field in four following outings to remain the only undefeated club in either group with five out of seven games completed in opening round pool play. In slightly weaker Group A, Team USA has risen to the top, dispite a single lackluster performance and upset loss at the hands of an Italian squad manned largely by unheralded Single A players from organized baseball. Chinese Taipei (loser only to Mexico) trails the Americans in Group A, and these two frontrunners will battle for the top slot in their Tuesday 5 am preliminary round finale. The remaining two qualifying slots in Group A are up for grabs in a dogfight between Italy (3-1), Panama (3-2), Japan (3-2) and Mexico (2-3). Crucial remaining games for these clubs will be the Tuesday Japan-Italy collison and the Italy-Mexico game on Wednesday.
Cuba’s 5-0 start has been highlighted by the mentioned dramatic 3-2 extra-inning comeback in the opener with Australia, a game which saw the heavy favorites down to their last strike in the bottom of the ninth before Freddie Cepeda cruched a dramatic homer which rescued the islanders and sent the game into extra frames. Cuban then salted away victory on a walkoff homer by Osmani Urrutia in the bottom of the tenth. The pitching-rich Australians have been the week’s biggest surprise, bouncing back from their disappointment versus Cuba to reel off consecutive victories over Venezuela, Canada, Thailand and Korea. The Cardiac Kid Aussies have won three of their victories via the “walk-off” route, meaning that all of their games minus one (the 26-1 rout of Thailand) have gone down to the final at-bat. Canada, Korea and the Netherlands (all currently 3-2) are battled for the final medal-round assignments from Group B. Cuba’s most recent victory this morning (a 10-0 seven inning knockout of Caribbean rival Venezuela) featured the near perfect-game pitching of WBC hero Yadel Marti (pictured here), who lost his masterpiece when he yielded a tame two-out single in the final frame.
Cuba’s pitching has so far been masterful, yet the biggest story to date in the Cuban camp has been the power display of switch-hitting left field Frederich Cepeda. I have long argued that Cepeda (remembered by some MLB fans for his homer in the late innings of the WBC final versus Japan) is currently the best all-around player on the planet not affiliated with American pro baseball, and Cepeda has done nothing to weaken that claim with his perfomance in Taipei. (Readers of this blog might also be interested in my October 12 column on www.baseballdecuba.com entitled “Evaluating Cuba’s Top Hitters in the Major International Tournaments” where I make the case in detail for Cepeda as Team Cuba’s top offensive weapon.) Cepeda’s week in Taipei began with the dramatic face-saving homer (pictured here) stroked off a delivery from Australian minor league hurler Brad Thomas. Overall he is batting a tournament-best .579 after five contests; has stroked two game-winning hits in addition to his game-saving circuit blast; and has two doubles, two triples, and six RBI (trailing only teammate Yoandry Urgelles in the run production department). Urrutia, a six-time Cuban League batting champ and all-time BA leader on the island with a .371 career average (see my blog entry of June 5, 2007) has also made his presence felt with his game-winner againt Australia and a week-long .313 hitting spree.
Fans interested in following the remainder of World Cup action (thru November 18) as we charge toward next week’s exciting single-elimination championship medal round are again reminded that I am providing daily detailed English-language reports on our Cuban League website at www.baseballdecuba.com. That same site is also providing live video feed of four games daily (two at 11 pm EST and two more at 5 am EST), plus an archive in which all previous games my be viewed on-line from start to finish. All that is required is Windows Media Player. The Cuba-Australia (Cepeda’s homer), Cuba-Venezuela (Marti’s masterpiece), USA-Italia (the big upset), and Canada-Australia (dramatic extra-inning walkoff for the bold Aussies) are all worth watching in replay format. It is baseball with a clear difference, of course–no endless jabber from Joe Morgan and Jon Miller, no stream of non-stop commercials, small crowds and players who have never been featured on ESPN Sports Center–in other words, perhaps a bit boring for most MLB addicts. But for some of us it is indeed true baseball paradise!