Cubans ready for another Classic run
It was an historic move, as Cuba had been an international power in baseball and winner of three of the four Olympic gold medals in the preceding 16 years.
They were the winners of the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, and the 2004 International Baseball Federation World Cup in the Netherlands. The Cubans have won the latter tournament 25 times since its inception in 1938. But Cuba had never competed against Major League players in an international tournament.
The closest it came was splitting a pair of exhibition games against the Baltimore Orioles in 1999, losing in Havana and winning at Camden Yards.
With players like center fielder Alexei Ramirez, currently with the White Sox, the Cubans lived up to their reputations by winning five games in the tournament before falling to Japan, 10-6, in the championship game at San Diego's Petco Park.
The Cuban team cruised through the first round, topping Panama and the Netherlands, with its lone loss in Pool C coming against Puerto Rico. The loss was avenged in the second round, when Cuba topped Puerto Rico along with Venezuela to qualify for the semifinals.
The club rebounded from a 7-3 loss to the Dominican Republic in Round 2 with a 3-1 semifinal victory against a Dominican team made up of Major League All-Stars to qualify for the matchup against Japan.
That win earned Cuba the distinction of being the only Latin American team to reach the final in a field that included such powerhouses as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. The final was the 37th time Cuba advanced to a championship game, spanning years of Olympic participation, World Cups and Intercontinental Cups.
Ramirez, who helped the White Sox reach the playoffs in 2008, hit .375 (6-for-16) with two doubles and two RBIs for Cuba in the Classic.
Although it is unlikely Ramirez will participate for the Cuban team in 2009, many of the players who helped Cuba get to the final three years ago could return.
Outfielder Yoandy Garlobo, who hit .480 with a .536 on-base percentage, had the fourth-best average of any tournament participant and the second-highest among players with at least 20 at-bats, trailing only Ken Griffey Jr.'s .524 mark in 21 at-bats for the USA.
Outfielder Frederich Cepeda hit .385 with two homers and eight RBIs in 26 at-bats, including a two-run home run in the eighth inning off Soichi Fujita in the final that cut Japan's lead to one run.
Outfielder Osmany Urrutia (.345), first baseman Arriel Borrero (.318) and third baseman Yulieski Gourriel (.273) should be back to form the nucleus of what will likely be another productive offense. Cuba's team batting average in the 2006 Classic was .283, and the club's 44 runs and 117 total bases surpassed every team except Japan.
Starting catcher Ariel Pestano and shortstop Eduardo Paret could also be back for return engagements.
Pitchers Yadel Marti (1-0 with a 0.00 ERA in four games) and Pedro Lazo (1-0, 2.45), who helped beat the Dominican Republic to put the Cuban team in the final, are expected back, along with Ormani Romero (2-1, 4.15), who started against the Japanese.