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Cuban team fall short in Caribbean Series opener

Cuban team fall short in Caribbean Series opener

Posted by Shanelle Weir on February 03, 2015

The prestige of Cuban baseball, earned through decades of dominating international amateur tournaments, has received a boost from the stellar major league performances of defectors such as Jose Abreu, Aroldis Chapman, Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes.

However, those defections and many others have diminished the quality of play in the island's top league and taken some of the luster off the national team.

A disappointing performance in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, where Cuba failed to make it out of the first round, and last year's embarrassing 1-3 record in a long-awaited return to the Caribbean Series have further brought the Cubans' reputation into question.

Chagrined by seeing league champion Villa Clara bounced out early in last year's Caribbean Series – a tournament pitting the winners of winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Mexico – Cuban officials redoubled their efforts to bolster the team.

The club representing the Communist country at this year's competition resembles the national squad that swept through the Central American and Caribbean Games last November, with longtime stars Yulieski Gourriel, Frederich Cepeda and Alfredo Despaigne among the 16 "reinforcements'' – twice as many as last year – that have fortified Serie Nacional reigning champ Pinar del Rio.

The improvement was not evident right away, as Cuba took a 2-1 loss Monday in the tournament opener against Mexico, the two-time defending champion. Venezuela beat Puerto Rico 5-2 in the nightcap.

Anthony Vasquez, a 28-year-old left-hander who spent most of last season with Class AA Bowie (Md.) in the Baltimore Orioles organization, combined with three relievers to limit the Cubans to six singles. Gourriel, Cepeda and Despaigne went a combined 1-for-10.

"Baseball is unpredictable,'' manager Alfonso Urquiola said. "When you look at our roster, we're an offensive team. But things don't always go the way you want them to. Obviously we expect more from our team.''

So do the folks back home, where the decision to field a team that resembles Pinar del Rio in uniform only – a mere three of its players started Monday – has generated considerable debate. By comparison, the Venezuelan representative – Caribes de Anzoategui – has just three reinforcements, or players borrowed from another team to strengthen the league winner.

Baseball success on the international stage is a major source of pride in Cuba, where fans follow the exploits of defectors in the big leagues even when the government brands them as traitors. Their achievements – five natives of Cuba played in last July's All-Star Game – has emboldened more of their former teammates and opponents to leave the island in pursuit of riches and a new life.

Nonetheless, a scout for a major league team who has long followed Cuban baseball believes there is still plenty of talent left. He points to Gourriel as a player who would make an impact in the majors right now, and accomplished hitters like Cepeda and Despaigne as possible big-league DHs. Gourriel's brother, infielder Lourdes Gourriel, is among a group of youngsters who would be high-level major-league prospects, among them pitchers Hector Mendoza and Norge Luis Ruiz.

But this is not the Central American Games.

"Here they're playing against some guys who have been in the major leagues,'' said the scout, who spoke on condition of anonymity for competitive reasons. "It's not that easy. But the talent is there.''

The Cubans pride themselves on playing fundamental baseball, and yet a lapse in judgment helped turn Monday's game in favor of Mexico's entry, the Tomateros de Culiacan, which only managed three hits.

Cuba led 1-0 in the sixth when, with one out and a runner on second, starting pitcher Freddy Asiel Alvarez fielded a grounder and threw late to third rather than taking the sure out at first. Joey Meneses drove in the tying run on a fielder's choice, and Mexico scratched out the go-ahead score on pinch-hitter Walter Ibarra's single in the seventh.

The loss put Cuba in the position of having to recover the next two days when facing the Dominican Republic, a traditional power, and host country Puerto Rico.

Then again, Mexico manager Benji Gil pointed out that Cuba was not the only country with a stacked team.

"All the teams that are here are the champions of our respective leagues, so we're all loaded,'' Gil said. "They have players who are stars at the international level. We have stars who are fighting to get to the major leagues, and some who are already there. Nobody's here on vacation. We're all here trying to win the tournament.''

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