Cuba stuns P.R., advances to semis
By Jesse Sanchez / MLB.com
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Garbed in its traditional uniform -- red pants and predominately red jersey -- for the first time in World Baseball Classic play, Cuba went out of its way to save its best for last.
Cuba manager Higinio Velez was not around to see it all, but he probably would have liked what his red machine did Wednesday night.
In fact, he would have loved it.
Cuba topped Puerto Rico, 4-3, to join the Dominican Republic and Korea in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic in an emotional game filled with passion and close calls. Velez was ejected in the seventh after arguing a call at second base, but even the no-nonsense manager would have to smile after the victory.
The players sure were, and now they are headed to PETCO Park in San Diego to take on the Dominican Republic (5-1) on Saturday in the first game of the semifinals. The Dominican Republic defeated Cuba, 7-3, earlier in Pool 2 play and will go to San Diego as the top seed from this pool, ahead of Cuba.
Cuba finishes the first two rounds of play with a 4-2 record. Puerto Rico (4-2) is eliminated.
"I said it two or three days ago," Velez said. "I said this was only the very beginning of the Classic, and it was not over. People started saying that Cuba would be out and I said to be patient, and just wait. Now we've shown what Cuba can do."
It was business as usual for Team Cuba as it jumped out to an early lead, and succeeded in keeping Puerto Rico's offense quiet as well as the sellout crowd of 19,773 fanaticos.
Until the seventh inning.
Puerto Rico third baseman Jose Valentin led off the frame with a double in the first of several events that sent the crowd into a frenzy and eventually led to a Cuban uproar.
Alex Cintron followed Valentin with a single and pinch-hitter Ricky Ledee hit what appeared to be routine groundball that had all the makings of double play.
It was anything but.
Cuba second baseman Yulieski Gourriel fielded Ledee's ball and threw to shortstop Eduardo Paret, who was moving toward second base and preparing to turn two.
Paret didn't get one.
Second base umpire James Hoye ruled that Paret was pulled off the bag when he caught Gourriel's relay and ruled Cintron safe. Valentin scored on the play to cut Cuba's lead to 4-2, prompting Velez to race out of the visitors' dugout, his female translator in tow, to argue the call.
Velez yelled at Hoye in Spanish, the translator in English. Even starting pitcher Ormari Romero charged out of the dugout, his tired pitching arm tucked on the inside of his jersey, barking and waving his only free arm in protest.
Velez was ejected a few minutes later and continued to vehemently plead his case all the way to the dugout before disappearing into a sea of red uniforms. The ejected, but not dejected, manager had to like what happened next though as Bernie Williams hit into a double play -- Gourriel to Paret to first baseman Ariel Barrero.
"You can have a protest, you can have ejection, you can have people kicked out of the game, and that always happens," Velez said. "This is not the first time that you've seen this happen. It seems to me that these are the best (umpires) selected for the Classic, and by the way, I'd like to congratulate the umpires for the job they did."
Following the double play, Yunieski Maya walked Ivan Rodriguez to set up an eventful 12-pitch showdown with Carlos Beltran that ended with an RBI single to center field, which cut Cuba's lead to one run.
Rodriguez attempted to score from first when Cuba center fielder Carlos Tabares bobbled Beltran's hit, but was thrown out at home by Gourriel on a perfectly executed relay to end the inning and preserve Cuba's lead.
Puerto Rico would not score again.
"That was the play of the game," Gourriel said. "It was raining, the grass was wet, and when you have wet synthetic turf it is difficult to catch a ball and grasp it very well. I threw it home as hard as I could, because a soft throw wouldn't work, and it worked out well."
Though the image of an irate Romero during the seventh inning will linger, what he did on the mound should also be remembered. The right-hander was strong for four innings, shutting down the powerful Puerto Rico offense and giving up only three hits in the 71-pitch outing.
He had help.
Tied, 1-1, after three innings, Cuba right fielder Osmani Urrutia led off the frame with a single and moved to second when the next batter, Yoandy Garlobo, followed with a base hit. One out later, Puerto Rico starter Dicky Gonzalez walked Ramirez to load the bases.
Gonzalez was immediately replaced by Jose Santiago and would not face another hitter. Perhaps he wishes he did.
On a 2-2 count to Paret, Santiago nailed him with a pitch, allowing Urrutia to trot home and give Cuba its first lead, 2-1.
One out later, Ramirez and Paret both scored on a throwing error by Cintron as Cuba extended its lead to 4-1.
Cuba shortstop Eduardo Perez led off the game with a walk, stole second base and eventually came home on a groundball by Borrero to give Cuba an early one-run advantage.
The lead did not last long.
Puerto Rico answered in the bottom half of the frame with a leadoff home run by Bernie Williams to tie the score.
Romero and Gonzalez would make sure it would stay that way until the fourth.
"For you, some of the media and press that follow baseball, it might have been a surprise," Velez said. "It's normal for us. This is the way we play baseball in Cuba."
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.