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Baseball is spoken fluently in Cuba

3/13/2006

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The big question before the beginning of the World Baseball Classic was if Cuba would be able to handle teams with professional players.

That question seemed to be answered last Friday, when Puerto Rico manhandled Cuba (winning 12-2) with some great performances from major league players.

On Sunday, however, Cuba made a strong statement that it can hang with the big boys: dominating a powerful Venezuelan squad that is a heavy favorite to win the tournament.

Right-handers Yadiel Marti and Pedro Lazo allowed only five hits and two runs in nine innings, while Frederick Cepeda and Ariel Pestano hit back-to-back home runs in the sixth inning as Cuba defeated Venezuela 7-2 in the first game of the second round.

Marti didn't allow hits until the fifth inning, when outfielder Magglio OrdoƱez and first baseman Ramon Hernandez hit back-to-back singles, and was replaced by Lazo, who gave up three hits and two runs the rest of the game to earn the save.

The fifth inning was precisely the turning point. Venezuela had the bases loaded with no outs, but two pop-outs to left field and a Carlos Guillen strikeout got Cuba out of the jam.

"There is a reason why Cuba is the World and Olympic champion," said Cuba manager Higinio Velez. "They don't give away those trophies. The good teams are those who know how to bounce back after a tough loss, because losing is going to happen sometimes."


It doesn't happen often to Cuba, though. Velez, 54, led the Cuban national team to victory at the Olympic Games in 2004 and in the World Championships in 2001, 2003 and 2005. He also won the Intercontinental Cup and the Pan-American Games in 2003.

But in all of those events, Cuba faced amateur players. The Classic, however, features many of the best baseball players in the world.

"No team is stronger than the other. None is better than the other," said Velez. "Every country that was invited to the World Classic had done something to deserve their spot, and those who have advanced to the second round have done so by playing good baseball."

Cuba didn't play very good baseball in the last game of the first round against Puerto Rico and was handed its worst defeat in 23 years in international tournaments.

"Puerto Rico was not a better team than Venezuela two days ago. Each team knows each other and plays to the best of their abilities," said Velez. "Two days ago, it was a completely different situation.

"So I ask people not to jump to conclusions. I just ask them to watch Cuba play against major league players and then draw their conclusions accordingly."

Cuba will meet the Dominican Republic on Monday and Puerto Rico again on Wednesday.

Velez likes his team's chances.

"This is good for baseball," he said of the Classic.

Enrique Rojas is a reporter and columnist for ESPNdeportes.com and ESPN.com.