Cuba needs extras, but gets first win

Cuba needs extras, but gets first win

Box score

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Leading up to its matchup against Panama, no other team in the inaugural World Baseball Classic had received as much attention for its state of affairs off the field as Cuba.

The constant talk of security measures, its communist government and defection were issues that all seemingly moved to the forefront, making the sport and the country's rich history of athletics secondary.

On Wednesday, Cuba second baseman Yulieski Gourriel and his teammates reminded the 6,129 in attendance at Hiram Bithorn Stadium and anyone who was paying attention the reason for the season -- and the tournament.

It's about baseball and pride, not to mention a healthy competition between countries.

Gourriel proved the point by hitting a two-run home run in the top of the ninth to break a 4-4 tie, and Yoandy Garbolo reiterated it by driving home Michel Enrique in the 11th inning with what proved to be the game-winner in an 8-6 victory that featured half as many combined hit batsman as runs.

Gourriel walked and scored Cuba's eighth run of the game in the eventful 11th. Enrique reached base after being hit for the third time in the game. Overall, there were seven hit batsmen.

"I was very impressed with the way they played, because they play as a team," Panama starter Bruce Chen said. "They do the little things, and they tried to win. They tried everything for the team to win."

Cuba (1-0) next plays the Netherlands here on Thursday night. The Dutch team began round-robin play in Pool C on Wednesday night against Puerto Rico, which won its opener on Tuesday.

Panama fell to 0-2 in Pool C, making it unlikely that the country will advance to the next round of the tournament, even with a win on Friday against the Netherlands.

Gourriel, who finished 3-for-4 with four RBIs, did it all.

"First, I am very happy," Gourriel said. "We played a good game, and what is most important is that my team won and also that so many foreign television stations were here today. It was a very good opportunity for everybody in the world to see that Cuban baseball players play well anywhere in the world at any level."

With Cuba ahead, 6-4, Panama loaded the bases in the ninth inning and plated a run on a base hit by Olmedo Saenz to cut the Cuban lead to one. Cuban pitcher Yuniesky Maya recovered to strike out Carlos Lee, but then hit the next batter, Earl Agnoly, with the bases loaded, to tie the game at 6.

The high number of hit batters surprised only a few. Panama and Cuba have met several times in international competition, so calling the game a rivalry is an understatement.

"The game was so close, I don't think anybody was trying to hit anybody or put anybody on base," Chen said. "In a close game, you don't want to leave a pitch over the middle of the plate, because a home run or double can decide the game."

Early on, it was almost called a blowout.

Panama loaded the bases for the first time with one out in the bottom of the first inning, but Cuban starter Pedro Luis Lazo escaped the inning unscathed when designated hitter Sherman Obando hit into an inning-ending double play that featured a nice toss by shortstop Eduardo Paret, and a fancy bare-handed grab and pivot by the slick-fielding Gourriel.

In the second, Panama catcher Carlos Ruiz walked with one out, and advanced to third when Audes DeLeon followed with a single. Yoni Lasso's ground-rule double drove home Ruiz and pushed Lazo out of the game with Panama ahead, 1-0.

A walk to Freddy Herrera by Cuba's Vicyohandry Odelin loaded the bases again for Panama, this time with two outs, but Saenz hit into a forceout to end the inning and keep Cuba within striking distance.

Cuba managed only one hit off Chen, a starter for the Orioles, in the first two innings, but the club's resilience paid off in the third. Joan Carlos Pedrosa reached base on a shallow single to center field that dropped in a few feet ahead of Ruben Rivera to start the frame, and scooted to third on a pair of sacrifice bunts by Alexei Ramirez and Carlos Tabares.

Paret knocked Pedrosa home from third with a double to left field to tie the game. He scored from second base when Gourriel smoked a line drive to the left-field corner to give Cuba a 2-1 lead.

Chen recovered to strike out Osami Urrutia, but the damage had been done. Cuba, unlike its Panamanian counterparts, did not waste the opportunity to score.

Odelin was stellar, all but eliminating any scoring chances for Panama -- initially. Following the walk to Herrera, Odelin sat down 11 out of the next 12 batters he faced, including 10 in a row through the fifth inning.

But the tiring Cuban pitcher ran into trouble in the sixth, giving up a single to Lee and walking Obando. The next batter, Rivera, followed with a three-run home run.

Panama was up, 4-2, and Odelin was out on a sour note, but Cuba's mood was far from spoiled.

Following a walk to pinch-hitter Ariel Borrero, Ramirez scored on a RBI single by Paret to cut Panama's lead to one run, 4-3. Enrique was hit by a pitch to load the bases for Gourriel.

He did not disappoint.

Gourriel launched a deep drive that was caught by Rivera in deep center field, but which allowed pinch-runner Leslie Anderson to tag up from third base and tie the game at 4.

"If they give [Gourriel] the opportunity to be in the big leagues, he is going to be a fine Major Leaguer," Chen said. "He's young, he's going to get better, and hopefully he is going to have the opportunity. Actually, I felt that if they did not have him, we would have won that game, because I don't know how many RBIs he had, but it seemed like every time he came up to the plate, he was there and part of the rally."

Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.