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."


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