Better pitching a perfect strategy

Better pitching a perfect strategy

SAN JUAN -- Higinio Velez, a man clearly not afraid of the possibility of being inducted into the Famous Last Words Hall of Fame, before the game expressed his gratitude to the Puerto Ricans.

Velez essentially thanked them for beating the frijoles out of his Cuban team 36 hours earlier.

"It showed that we have to alter our preparation," Velez said hours before his lads met Venezuela, "and some of our strategy."

Well, yeah. Nothing will slam you back to the drawing board harder than a 12-2 defeat.

The only strategic alterations Cuba needed Sunday afternoon were some pitchers able to get some outs. So starting Yadel Marti was good strategy. Relieving with Pedro Lazo was great strategy.

"Two days ago," Velez said, "we saw something completely different. We had weak pitching."

Sunday, within eyesight of 13,697 in Hiram Bithorn Stadium and within earshot of the baseball universe, Marti and Lazo planted a Cuban flag on baseball's Mt. Rushmore.

Those two, a May-December tandem on the Cuban staff, defused Venezuela, and in so doing fired the shot heard 'round the World Baseball Classic.

Marti, a 22-year-old told sometime between breakfast and the anthems that he'd be pitching, and Lazo, the 33-year-old who fired up his team by escaping a bases loaded, none out strife in the fifth, pitched the game their manager had talked.

This 7-2 win in the opener of Pool 2 of the Classic's Round 2 came over a collection of front-line Major Leaguers, confirming Cuba's place in the global lineup.

Whatever transpires hereon -- it's baseball, a game designed to swing moods and fortunes -- Cuba has earned its acclaim.

"We are a good team," Lazo said. "Two days ago, everyone said Cuba was done. We are not gone. We're still here, and whoever wants to beat Cuba will really have to sweat it out."

"Everybody had been saying we aren't ready to play professionals," Velez said after the game, honing in on the Classic's leading subplot. "I'd like to remind everyone we're world Olympic champions.

"You just had to be patient. You just had to wait and see what we could do. After watching us play, you can draw your own conclusions."

Sunday's game may have delivered a Classic "I told you so." However, it wasn't conclusive. Cuba must bounce back Monday afternoon to tangle with the Dominican Republic, then has a Wednesday night rematch with Puerto Rico.

But one conclusion could be drawn from this game: Against Cuba, one cannot make mistakes, which to the Cubans are like blood in the ocean to a shark. They have a marvelous killer instinct, which sics them on openings with a vengeance.

Give them consecutive openings, as a bumbling Omar Vizquel did in the top of the sixth, and it is curtains.

The Venezuelan shortstop first pulled the hidden-ball trick on himself, having Osmany Urrutia's grounder bank off the heel of his glove inside his uniform jersey. Next, Vizquel's bobble of Edgardo Alfonzo's feed prevented an inning-ending double play.

Instead, Frederich Cepeda hit a blowout-starting three-run homer.

"That basically was the game," said Venezuelan manager Luis Sojo.

And the beginning of seeing Cuba in a fresh light. They moved lighter, made plays more fluidly, exalted over good developments with more verve. They appeared to play out the game with a keen awareness of this accomplishment, having gone into it with a clear understanding of the challenge.

During the pre-game festivities, the Cubans, introduced first and lined up along the third base foul line, couldn't take their eyes off the Venezuelans. At that point, it became evident how intimidating it must have been to be so near people they previously had seen only on television.

That quickly wore off in the right hand of Marti. Largely unknown even in his own country, the spindly right-hander has now pitched 8 1/3 shutout innings in three Classic games, and allowed three hits while striking out nine.

He saved both of Cuba's Pool C wins before starting this Pool 2 launch.

"I can't say that things always go well," Marti said. "But I was physically and mentally prepared for the game. I was in control."

Because Velez gave him no chance to come unglued. Presumably, that is one reason he wasn't told about the assignment until it was time to warm up. Marti being a youngster with no big-game experience, Velez probably didn't want to give him a chance to fret.

And, really, isn't that what makes someone a good manager? Knowing his personnel, and the best way to handle each of them?

A startlingly even-tempered man whose demeanor gives little clue whether he had just won big or lost miserably, Velez's insides nonetheless had to be doing a little mambo.

"I think this was a wonderful baseball game," he said. "As we said two days ago, what happened is history. This is the start of the second round.

"This is what you wanted to see, and this is what we wanted to play. This is Cuban baseball."

We don't yet know whether there is something definable as "Venezuelan baseball." But the team's manager hopes it isn't what he saw Sunday afternoon and, really, what he has been watching for four Classic game-days.

Pitchers unable to stop the big-inning snowball's downhill roll. Hitters coming up empty in the clutch. Now some sloppy defense?

Is there a way to fix it? Between room service and a wake-up call, Sojo will think about it hard.

"I have to go back to my hotel room," he said, "and think about what we must do tomorrow."

They need to come up with some of that Cuban strategy alteration.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.