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Tom Verducci
March 20, 2006
Mystery Men
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March 20, 2006

Baseball

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Mystery Men

The World Baseball Classic served as a coming-out party for a largely unknown Cuban team, which had its ups and downs

While teams such as the U.S. and Venezuela brought major league star power to the World Baseball Classic, Cuba brought an aura of mystery that in itself seemed advantageous. A few hours before Sunday's second-round opener in San Juan, for instance, Venezuela manager Luis Sojo did not know which Cuban pitcher would start against his team. He figured that Pedro Lazo, 32, would start or close, but didn't appear overly concerned. "They know how to pitch," Sojo said, "but they don't have any power pitchers."

It turned out that Cuba had several surprises in store for Sojo. Lazo entered the game in the fifth inning and went the rest of the way, escaping a no-outs, bases-loaded jam in the fifth with the pure power of 97-mph fastballs. The starting pitcher, Yadel Marti, had been the closer for Cuba's two first-round wins. Marti, 21, didn't even find out that he was starting until pregame warmups, then responded with four hitless innings before Lazo relieved him. Said an enlightened Sojo of Cuba after the loss, "They're really as good as we are."

The two pitchers combined on a five-hitter against an all-major-league lineup as Cuba rolled to an emphatic 7-2 win. Only two days earlier Cuba had ended first-round play with a 12-2 loss to Puerto Rico that was halted after seven innings by the 10-run mercy rule. It marked only the second time, and the first since 1983, that Cuba had suffered such a knockout, as it is known in Latin America.

In every sense of the word Cuba is the surprise team of the WBC. When Venezuelan lefthander Johan Santana was asked last Saturday about Cuban second baseman Yulieski Gourriel, the hot-hitting star of the first round (4 for 7 with a home run and five RBIs against Panama and the Netherlands combined), the Twins ace replied, "I'm going to be honest with you. I do not know who Gourriel is."

The next day Gourriel struck out twice against Santana, though Cuba hung the loss on the 2004 AL Cy Young Award winner while also roughing up reliever Giovanni Carrara. Cuba scored 28 runs in its first four games, winning three of them, before Monday's 7-3 loss to the Dominican Republic.

Cuba, the 2004 Olympic champion, has long been a powerhouse in international competition, winning 19 straight before the loss to Puerto Rico. But many experts figured that the abundance of major leaguers in the Classic would be a stiff test, especially because Cuba did not bring several of its star players, fearing they would be more likely to defect. The loss to Puerto Rico and a sloppy, extra-inning victory over a winless Panama team in the first round underscored those points.

The Cubans, though, enjoy an advantage over the WBC's other teams: Their players are in midseason form. (The Cuban regular season was suspended for the Classic.) While other managers must first be concerned with protecting the health of players who will return to major league camps, Cuba's Higinio Velez can manage more aggressively. For example, no manager would deploy a major league pitcher in the variety of roles in which Velez has used Marti, the early pitching star of the tournament with 8 1/3 shutout innings.

"When Puerto Rico beat Cuba, everybody said that was a knockout and Cuba was already gone for the whole tournament," Lazo said after Sunday's win. " Cuba is not gone. Cuba is still here, and whoever wants to beat Cuba will really have to sweat it out."

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