Monday, March 20, 2006

Ichiro comes up big for Japan in win over Cuba

SAN DIEGO -- Forget beisbol. This was yakyu at its best, and the inaugural World Baseball Classic belongs to Japan.

Ichiro Suzuki and his less-famous countrymen beat Cuba 10-6 in the championship game Monday night, ripping a page out of Cuba's scorebook by winning a major international tournament.

On a festive night when Cuban and Japanese fans danced to "Surf City" and Sadaharu Oh escorted Hank Aaron -- there's 1,623 homer runs between them -- onto the field for the ceremonial first pitch, Japan won the 16-nation tournament that showed baseball in March can matter.

Nobuhiko Matsunaka
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Nobuhiko Matsunaka scored three runs and had three hits for Japan on Monday night.

The Classic's slogan is "Baseball Spoken Here." In this case, it's yakyu, which in Japanese means "field ball."

Suzuki doubled, singled and drove in a run. He also scored three times, including in a four-run first inning that proved Cuba's pitchers are vulnerable, after all.

Cuba's fans perked up when their team, wearing its lucky red uniforms, pulled to 6-5 on a two-run homer by Frederich Cepeda with one out in the eighth. Akinori Otsuka, the former San Diego Padres reliever now with Texas, came on and retired the side.

Suzuki singled in the ninth to score Munenori Kawasaki on a close play at the plate and make it 7-5. Kawasaki slid, turned and stuck his right hand just inside of catcher Ariel Pestano's left foot to -- perhaps -- touch the plate. Japan broke it open on a two-run single by pinch-hitter Kosuke Fukudome and a sacrifice fly by Michihiro Ogasawara.

Otsuka allowed a run in the ninth before closing it out for a save.

With the United States failing to make it out of the second round and the Dominican Republic losing to Cuba in the semifinals, Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners star, was the only major leaguer in the starting lineups. Otsuka is the only other big leaguer on Japan's roster.

The Cubans consider themselves amateurs, although Miguel Tejada and Albert Pujols, who played for the Dominican Republic, said leading up to the semis that most of the Cubans could be in the majors.

But for as good as the Cubans are -- they had won 22 of 24 games in international competition and have dominated the globe for decades -- they cracked at the worst possible time.

Japan took a 4-0 lead in the top of the first while hitting the ball out of the infield just once.

Cuba starter Ormari Romero was on a short leash to begin with, but was yanked after throwing 23 pitches. He retired leadoff hitter Kawasaki, then loaded the bases on infield singles by Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Nobuhiko Matsunaka, and a walk to Suzuki.

Vicyhoandry Odelin came on and hit Hitoshi Tamura on the left elbow with a pitch to force in the second run, walked Ogasawara with two outs to bring in another, before Toshiaki Imae hit a sharp, two-run single up the middle to make it 4-0.

Eduardo Paret hit a leadoff homer for the Cubans in the first, but they didn't score again until the sixth, when they made it 6-3. One of Cuba's two runs that inning was unearned due to an error by shortstop Kawasaki, who earlier in the game made two brilliant plays. Japan took a 6-1 lead by scoring twice in the fifth on three straight hits -- Suzuki's leadoff double and singles by Matsunaka and Tamura.

At first, communist Cuba was denied a permit to participate in the tournament due to decades of political animosity with the U.S. government. And Japan kept a stiff upper lip after it appeared to be deprived of the go-ahead run in a 4-3 loss to the United Sates on March 12 in the opener of Round 2.

The tournament was considered a success, coming not long after baseball was booted from the Olympics effective in 2012.

Petco Park, the San Diego Padres' downtown ballpark, hasn't seen such a festive night since it opened in 2004.

Fans from both countries waved flags, blew horns and banged cowbells.

The San Diego Symphony Orchestra played the national anthems of Japan, Cuba and the United States. The Japanese players bowed after their anthem was played.

Oh, the Japanese hero who hit 868 homers and now manages the national team, escorted Aaron to the third-base line. Aaron, whose 755 homers are the most in major league history, went to the mound by himself to throw the ceremonial first pitch to Pestano, who had Aaron autograph the ball.

After streamers were shot from the upper deck, it was time for beisbol ... and yakyu.

For Miami's Cubans, a choice between sports, politics

MIAMI -- Cuban immigrant Luis Gomez was quick to pick his favorite in the World Baseball Classic championship game between Japan and Cuba.

"We're Cubans. We root for Cuba," the 83-year-old said as he picked up his usual lunch of chicken and rice at Los Pinarenos cafe in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood.

Across the counter, shopkeeper Angel Hernandez, 66, shook his head.

"If Cuba wins, Fidel wins," Hernandez said. "I hope Japan wins."

As Cuba and Japan prepared for Monday night's game in San Diego, Miami's Cubans found themselves in an awkward position, split over whether to root for the Cubans or protest the participation of the communist country in the tournament.

Their passion for baseball and Cuba is legendary, but so too is their hatred of Fidel Castro and their opposition to anything that makes him look good.

Hernandez, who fled Cuba in 1960, was quick to note that he has nothing against players such as pitchers Pedro Lazo and Ormario Romero, but added, "Fidel, he uses everything. He will use a win. It will make him look better at home and internationally."

Gomez agreed with that, but added: "What does a baseball player, or a doctor for that matter, have to do with the politics?"

For decades the answer has been a lot.

Hundreds of Cuban musicians, artists and intellectuals have been refused U.S. visas under a 1985 U.S. presidential proclamation that prohibits most Cuban government employees from entering the United States. Most of these artists are compensated by the Cuban government.

The restrictions have gotten even tighter in recent years.

The U.S. Treasury Department initially refused the visa for the Cuban team to play in the World Baseball Classic, reversing its stance only after Cuba promised to donate profits from the tournament to victims of Hurricane Katrina -- meaning Castro's government would receive no financial gain.

Over the weekend, demonstrators decried the participation of the Cuban team during a protest along Little Havana's main drag, Calle Ocho, and the AM radio dial's Spanish-language talk shows were filled with people sounding off about the Classic.

South of Little Havana in the upscale city of Coral Gables, where cafes and haute couture bridal boutiques line the central street, Omar Quereshy, who describes himself as half Cuban, half Pakistani, scoffed at the notion that he should boycott the team of his mother's native country.

"That's ludicrous," the 25-year-old accountant said. "Athletes are athletes."

Yet for 30-year-old Victor Uranga of Sweetwater, rooting against Cuba would be showing respect for family. His fled Cuba in the 1980 Mariel boatlift.

"I was rooting for the U.S., but I guess now I'm going for Japan," Uranga said, with what were clearly mixed feelings.

"We've got to give credit, a lot of credit, to that Cuban team. Everyone was just under the impression that they always played amateurs, and they never going to go toe-to-toe with the professionals, and definitely they've done that and then some," he said. "But feelings are still strong, especially in the older generation, and I'm not about to go against that."

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Once Colon leaves, Cuba puts pieces together

SAN DIEGO -- Frederich Cepeda and his Cuban countrymen consider themselves amateur baseball players back home, though in reality they're much closer to the level of the big-name American multimillionaires known around the world.

Only minus the money. The star treatment is there on the streets of Havana.

Major leaguers or not, Cuba's dominance on baseball's international stage is unparalleled -- and the Cubans are finally getting a chance to show it in the United States, too.

Osmani Urrutia hit a tiebreaking single in the seventh inning, Yadel Marti capped his sensational tournament by combining with Pedro Lazo on an eight-hitter, and Cuba defeated the Dominican Republic 3-1 Saturday to reach the championship game of the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

Rarely can Cuba play against such talent as it has seen in the Classic -- major league All-Stars at nearly every position.

"This is a revolutionary team," said Cepeda, Cuba's left fielder. "Baseball is not judged by the price of the athletes but by the heart of the people."

Wearing its lucky red uniforms for only the second time in the tournament, Cuba avenged a 7-3 loss to the Dominicans from five days earlier and moved within one victory of adding another title to the country's long list of baseball accomplishments.

Chants of "Cuba! Cuba!" began in the late innings from the crowd of 41,268 for a squad with no major leaguers. The Cubans sprinted onto the field to celebrate when Lazo struck out pinch-hitter Alfonso Soriano to end it. After hugs and high-fives, the Cubans acknowledged their fans by waving their caps.

Cuba will play the winner of Saturday's late game between unbeaten South Korea and Japan in the championship of the 16-team Classic on Monday night at Petco Park.

Yoandry Garlobo had three hits, and Alexei Ramirez and Cepeda each drove in runs in their team's decisive seventh inning that featured several mistakes by the Dominicans right after they took a 1-0 lead in the sixth on an unearned run.

Cuba, champion of the 2005 World Cup, 2004 Olympics and '03 Pan American Games played in Santo Domingo, is clearly in midseason form while the Dominicans are still working to find their rhythm after the winter.

The Cubans had to wait until the Dominicans went to their bullpen following six shutout innings by reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon to get anything going offensively. Colon, a 21-game winner last year for the Los Angeles Angels, might have gone another inning had it not been for a blister on his pitching hand.

Just like the Americans, who lost 2-1 to Mexico on Thursday night for a surprising early exit from the Classic, most of the Dominican players will head back to their major league camps wondering what went wrong and left to wait until 2009 for another shot in the WBC.

The Dominicans' All-Star roster included Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre, Miguel Tejada, David Ortiz and Moises Alou -- a team that Dominican general manager Stan Javier said a day earlier should be the best in the world.

"We should be proud," said Pujols, the St. Louis slugger and 2005 NL MVP. "We fell short. We wanted to win the whole thing for our country. ... I don't think our bats responded the way they were supposed to respond. Our pitching did their job, we just didn't find our offense. They played great defense. That's the way it goes."

The Dominicans got a big break in the sixth when Cuban second baseman Yulieski Gourriel booted a routine grounder by Beltre, then rushed the throw to first and the ball sailed over Ariel Borrero. Tejada scored on the misplay for a 1-0 lead, but it didn't last long.

Gourriel opened the seventh with an infield single off loser Odalis Perez, and third baseman Beltre made a costly mistake when his throw to first was in the dirt, allowing Gourriel to reach second. Pinch-hitter Eriel Sanchez followed with a dribbler down the third-base line for another infield single that advanced Gourriel.

Cepeda followed with an RBI groundout to tie the game, and Urrutia's single up the middle on the first pitch from reliever Salomon Torres gave Cuba a 2-1 lead. Ramirez hit a sacrifice fly three batters later.

Marti pitched 4 1/3 shutout innings to extend his scoreless streak to 12 2/3 innings in the tournament. He didn't give up a run in four WBC appearances.

Lazo then went the final 4 2/3 innings for the win. He retired Ortiz and Beltre on fly balls in the eighth with the potential tying runs aboard.

"We are all amateur players, therefore playing against major league players is the greatest victory for us," Cepeda said.

Marti received a visit on the mound before facing cleanup hitter Ortiz in the first with two runners on, and Lazo and another pitcher immediately began warming up. But Ortiz grounded into an inning-ending double play on a 3-2 pitch.

There was no lacking for Latin flavor.

Pujols carried out his country's flag before the Dominican team was introduced, with his countrymen waving flags, shaking maracas, pounding wooden sticks together and banging drums and other instruments.

Two hours before the first pitch, a group of Dominicans with flags wrapped around their bodies jumped up and down outside the stadium cheering "Dominicana! Dominicana!"

After anthems for Cuba, the Dominicans and United States were played with flags representing all 16 participating countries, the athletes met in the middle of the diamond to shake hands.

The mutual respect from both clubs was evident.

"We really went at it hard like professionals," Dominican manager Manny Acta said. "They deserve the credit. I'd rather give them credit than make excuses."

Monday, March 13, 2006

Ortiz hits third HR of tournament as Dominicans roll

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- On a day when opponents of Fidel Castro caused turmoil in and above the stands, David Ortiz powered the Dominican Republic to a key victory over Cuba.

Ortiz hit his third home run of the tournament and walked with the bases loaded in a 7-3 victory Monday that kept alive the Dominicans' hopes of advancing to the World Baseball Classic semifinals.

A group of fans caused a scuffle at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, spelling "Abajo Fidel [Down With Fidel]" with the letters on their shirts.

The fans also had a small sign with the same message about the Cuban president, as did an airplane pulling a sign over that appeared over the ballpark.

Tournament organizers banned signs with political messages to comply with an agreement made with Cuba for the team's participation in the Classic.

Other spectators chanted "Fuera! [Take them out!]" and security guards took the sign away and asked the fans with the anti-Castro message to change shirts or leave the ballpark. The anti-Castro fans wore two shirts to hide the letters when they entered the stadium, and they put their second shirts back on after an inning-long confrontation in the fifth.

During last Thursday's game between Cuba and the Netherlands, a spectator behind home plate raised a sign saying: "Down with Fidel." Angel Iglesias, vice president of Cuba's National Institute of Sports, rushed to confront the man. Puerto Rican police intervened and took Iglesias to a police station and lectured him about free speech.

Cuba and the Dominicans are both 1-1 in Group Two, led by Puerto Rico (1-0) heading into its night game against Venezuela (0-1). The Dominicans play Venezuela on Tuesday, and Cuba meets Puerto Rico on Wednesday.

The Dominican Republic led 7-0 after six innings in this one, then coasted. Starter Odalis Perez (2-0) struck out three in 4 2-3 scoreless innings, allowing three hits and one walk.

Miguel Tejada hit a go-ahead, two-run double in a four-run third, chasing starter Vicyohandry Odelin (0-1). Yadier Pedroso relieved, walked Albert Pujols, then retired Ortiz on a flyout as Tejada moved to third.

Moises Alou followed with a grounder to third that should have ended the inning, but Michel Enriquez threw wildly to first as Tejada and Pujols scored for a 4-0 lead.

An error by first baseman Ariel Borrero on Placido Polanco's grounder allowed another run to score in the fourth, and Ortiz hit a no-doubt homer off Yonder Martinez in the fifth, flipping his bat as soon as he finished his followthrough. Norberto Gonzalez relieved with the bases loaded in the sixth and walked Ortiz on a 3-1 pitch.

Yuliesky Gourriel homered in the seventh off Jorge Sosa. After Cuba scored twice in the ninth on right fielder Juan Encarnacion's error and Alexei Ramirez's RBI single, Fernando Rodney relieved with two on and one out.

He struck out Eduardo Paret, loaded the bases with a walk to Enriquez, then struck out Joan Pedroso on a checked swing.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Cuba capitalizes on miscues to stun Venezuela

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Cuba proved its point that it could hold its own against teams with major league star power.

Ten-time Gold Glove winner Omar Vizquel missed a double play opportunity and gave up an additional out on a fielder's choice, and Cuba capitalized with a five-run sixth inning in a 7-2 victory over Venezuela on Sunday in the second round of the World Baseball Classic.

Eduardo Paret
Al Bello/Getty Images
Cuban shortstop Eduardo Paret scored two of Cuba's seven runs.

Frederich Cepeda hit a three-run homer and Ariel Pestano followed with a solo shot as the underdog Cubans broke out after Johan Santana departed.

"Both teams played great baseball," Cuban manager Higinio Velez said. "Two days ago we told everyone to wait patiently for today's game. ... This is what Cuban baseball is all about. Our players wanted to come back strong after losing in a mercy rule game and they came through."

The Cubans were routed by Puerto Rico 12-2 in their final game of the first round, but had already clinched a berth in this round along with the powerful Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

With Cuba ahead 1-0, right-hander Giovanni Carrara replaced Santana, the Minnesota Twins ace who threw 67 pitches, 13 short of the 80-pitch limit for this round.

Leadoff hitter Eduardo Paret sparked the rally with a four-pitch walk and a stolen base, his second of the tournament. Michel Enriquez rolled a single over second base to score the speedy Paret, and Yulieski Gourriel popped out to left for the first out.

Designated hitter Osmani Urrutia hit a grounder to the left of Vizquel, who was unable to step on second before Enriquez reached safely, and it was too late to throw out the runner at first.

Carrara got a groundball to second from Yoandri Garlobo that looked like an inning-ending double play. Second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo tossed the ball to Vizquel for the first out, but the crafty shortstop could not get a grip on the ball to throw to first, and Cepeda followed with his three-run drive.

"Clutch hitting has been the missing ingredient for us," Venezuela manager Luis Sojo said. "The Cubans are very good fastball hitters and they showed they were ready whenever they got that pitch."

Venezuela scored its only two runs in the seventh on Endy Chavez's home run to right with Alfonzo on second.

Cuba took an early 1-0 lead in the second. Designated hitter Yoandri Garlobo doubled down the first-base line, moved to third on a grounder to short by Pestano, and scored on Ariel Borrero's single to left field.

Detroit Tigers right fielder Magglio Ordonez got Venezuela's first hit of the game in the fifth with a liner to left. Pedro Lazo replaced starter Yadel Marti after Ramon Hernandez singled to center. Lazo bobbled Alfonzo's grounder to load the bases with no outs.

But Chavez and Vizquel hit fly balls that were too shallow to score the slow Ordonez, and Carlos Guillen struck out swinging on a 97 mph pitch.

Venezuela's chance to move on to the semifinals will hang the shoulders of a pair of Chicago starters, hard-throwing Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs and White Sox veteran Freddy Garcia.

Zambrano will pitch for Venezuela against Puerto Rico on Monday, and Cuba meets the Dominican Republic.

"We have Carlos on the mound tomorrow and Freddy comes next, and we'll have to work hard to get to San Diego," Sojo said.

Santana, the unanimous American League Cy Young award winner in 2004, struck out five in five innings and gave up two hits and one earned run.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Cuban paper, sports group decry anti-Castro banner

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- While Cuba played the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic, a spectator in the stands raised a sign saying: "Down with Fidel," sparking an international incident that escalated Friday with the velocity of a major league fastball.

The image of the man holding the sign behind home plate was beamed live Thursday night to millions of TV viewers, including those in Cuba. The top Cuban official at the game at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan rushed to confront the man.

Puerto Rican police quickly intervened and took the Cuban official -- Angel Iglesias, vice president of Cuba's National Institute of Sports -- to a nearby police station where they lectured him about free speech.

"We explained to him that here the constitutional right to free expression exists and that it is not a crime," police Col. Adalberto Mercado was quoted as saying in El Nuevo Dia, a San Juan daily.

Local organizers of the tournament responded by banning posters of a political nature, but a top police official said his officers would not enforce the ban.

"The police of Puerto Rico will not interfere at any time with any type of expression," Puerto Rico Police Chief Pedro Toledo said.

The brouhaha gathered steam Friday when Cuba's Communist Party newspaper, Granma, called the sign-waving "a cowardly incident." Cuba's Revolutionary Sports Movement exhorted Cubans to demonstrate in Havana late Friday, saying U.S. and Puerto Rican authorities were involved in "the cynical counterrevolutionary provocations."

One of the protesters who showed up in front of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana bore a sign that said: "Down with Bush." Star Cuban athletes were among the hundreds of protesters. An official Cuban communique urged the Cuban team to "respond to the provocations with hits, home runs, strikes, outs."

The Cuban Baseball Federation, in a statement released Friday in San Juan, said authorities failed to provide security and preserve the spirit of the sporting event. The Cubans nonetheless decided to remain in the tournament after Puerto Rican promoters made guarantees, the federation said in a statement without elaborating.

An anti-Castro Web site,, identified the protester only as Enrique, and carried his own account of the incident.

Enrique said that during the warmup before the game, he flashed another sign denouncing Castro -- this one saying "Baseball players yes, Tyrants no" -- to the Cuban leader's son, Tony Castro, who is the Cuban team doctor.

"He looked down and kept walking and I shouted, 'Eso es para tu papa ['That is for your dad'].' ... I know he heard that," Enrique said, according to the account in the Web site.

Mercado said the spectator, and a second one who also waved signs, had tickets for the section behind home plate, but had moved out of their seats so their signs would appear on TV. Cuban state TV was showing the ESPN signal, and the signs were briefly visible on television in Cuba.

Police later told the pair to return to their seats, Mercado said, adding that Iglesias was never under arrest.

"The Cubans were upset with the incident that happened last night, and they want to make sure it doesn't happen again," said John Blundell, spokesman for Major League Baseball, which helped establish the tournament. "We are doing everything that we can to ensure the safety of fans and the delegations."

Cuba downed the Netherlands 11-2. Cuba has also beat Panama in the first round of competition and was playing Puerto Rico Friday night.

Williams, Beltran homer in Puerto Rico's romp

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Cuba blows ninth-inning lead, but beats Panama in 11

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Cuban and Panamanian fans brought their flags and hopes to Hiram Bithorn Stadium expecting a good show.

Cheered by a handful a raucous fans, the favored Cubans nearly lost the game during a ninth-inning meltdown but then bounced back win their World Baseball Classic opener 8-6 in 11 innings.

Yulieski Gourriel
AP Photo/Brennan Linsley
Scouts are drooling over Cuban second baseman Yulieski Gourriel.

Panamanian fans jumped in the stands and waved their flags when their team scored twice in the ninth to tie the game at 6. Panama nearly won it then, leaving the bases loaded, but couldn't come back again after pinch-hitter Yoandry Garlobo's go-ahead single in the 11th.

"The whole team is prepared mentally and physically, and any one of us could have done the same," Garlobo said.

Ruben Rivera hit a three-run homer for Panama (0-2), which trailed 6-4 in the ninth and loaded the bases with no outs against the Olympic champions.

Yunieski Maya struck out Freddy Herrera, but Olmedo Saenz blooped a single to center. Carlos Lee then struck out, but Maya forced in the tying run when he hit Sherman Obando on a hand with a pitch. Rivera followed with an inning-ending flyout.

"This was our first game, the one that gave us butterflies, and we are happy that we were able to break the ice with a victory," said Yulieski Gourriel, Cuba's star second baseman.

Panama's starting pitcher, Bruce Chen, said he admired Cuba's dedication.

"They do the small things that need to be done to win," Chen said.

Gourriel went 3-for-4 with a home run and four RBI.

"I was very impressed with him," Chen said. "If he ever gets the opportunity to play in the big leagues, I feel he would do a great job at that level. I was impressed. It seemed that every time he came to the plate, they were in the middle of a rally. If they hadn't had Gourriel, we would have won."

Gourriel had similar words for Chen, who gave up two runs and four hits in five innings.

"Bruce Chen is a great pitcher and for me it's an honor to face a pitcher of that caliber," the Cuban shortstop said.

Panama is playing without Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who decided to skip the tournament.

"If Mariano were here there's no doubt that we would have had a much better chance to win," Chen said. "But Mariano made a decision and he isn't here, and we were ready to do our best with the players we have."

Michel Enriquez started Cuba's go-ahead rally with two outs in the 11th against Jorge Cortes when he was hit by a pitch for the third time in the game. Gourriel walked, and Garlobo singled to center. Frederich Cepeda followed with another RBI single.

Maya got the win and Yadel Marti, Cuba's fifth pitcher, got three outs for the save.

Rivera's three-run, opposite-field homer to right off Vicyhoandry Odelin put Panama ahead 4-2 in the sixth. Cuba tied it in the seventh on Eduado Paret's RBI single and Gourriel's sacrifice fly and then went ahead in the ninth on Gourriel's homer against Manuel Acosta.

Cuba plays the Netherlands on Thursday and Puerto Rico on Friday. Panama's only remaining game is against the Netherlands on Friday.

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