Panama makes bid, but falls to Cuba
Loss puts club in precarious position for advancing
By Mark Feinsand / MLB.com
SAN JUAN -- Just when Team Panama appeared to have momentum on its side, Cuba showed the crowd at Hiram Bithorn Stadium why it shouldn't be counted out of the World Baseball Classic despite its lack of established Major Leaguers.
Cuba dealt Panama a crushing 8-6 loss in 11 innings on Wednesday afternoon, mounting a two-out rally to win its first game of the event.
The loss drops Panama to 0-2 in Pool C, making it unlikely that the country will advance to the next round of the tournament, even with a win on Friday against the Netherlands.
"It was a tough game, one we could have won," said Bruce Chen, who allowed two runs in five innings. "We're practically eliminated, but we played hard and showed people that we have the level of players to compete in this tournament."
Olmedo Saenz had two of Panama's 10 hits, including an RBI single in the ninth which helped Panama tie the game and send it to extra innings.
Yuliesky Gourriel, Cuba's 21-year-old phenom, went 3-for-4 with a home run and four RBIs, while Michel Enriquez reached base five times and scored the winning run. Cuba takes on the Netherlands on Thursday, looking to improve to 2-0.
"I was very impressed with the way they play baseball, because they play as a team," Chen said. "They do the little things and they play to win; that's the bottom line. They do everything to try to win."
Chen, the Orioles left-hander, needed just 16 pitches to get through the first two innings. But Cuba made some adjustments against Chen in the third, plating a pair of runs on RBI doubles by Eduardo Paret and Gourriel, taking a 2-1 lead.
Chen settled down after that, striking out Osmani Urrutia -- a .400 hitter in four of the last five seasons in Cuba -- to strand runners at second and third. Chen then retired the Cubans in order in each of the next two innings, which would be his last. Chen limited the Cubans to two runs on four hits over five innings of work.
"I was throwing strikes and my teammates were right behind me," Chen said. "It was tough, but we were right in the game."
Cuban starter Pedro Luis Lazo -- the Cuban League's active career wins leader with 209 -- didn't make it out of the second inning, giving up one run on four hits in 1 1/3 frames. But reliever Vicyohandri Odelin picked up the slack, retiring 11 of the first 12 hitters he faced.
Panama finally figured out Odelin in the sixth, and they made him pay.
Carlos Lee singled to right field to open the inning, then Odelin walked Obando. That brought Ruben Rivera to the plate, and the former big leaguer drilled a 1-1 pitch the opposite way, depositing the ball in the right-field stands to give Panama a 4-2 lead.
Panama's Manuel Corpas, a right-hander from the Rockies' organization, couldn't maintain the momentum from Rivera's homer, giving up two hits, walking a batter and hitting another with one out in the seventh.
With Cuba trailing by one, Panama turned to Manuel Acosta, who pitches in the Braves system. Acosta allowed a sacrifice fly that tied the game, but he escaped any further damage by retiring Urrutia with two men in scoring position.
With two outs in the ninth and the game tied at 4, Acosta walked Enriquez, putting the go-ahead run on base. Acosta got ahead of Gourriel, but the second baseman hammered the 0-2 pitch into the left-field seats, giving Cuba a two-run lead.
"If he gets the opportunity to play in the big leagues, he's going to be a fine Major Leaguer," Chen said of Gourriel. "I felt like if they didn't have him, we would have won that game."
Yadier Pedroso, who entered the game for Cuba in the sixth inning after Rivera's home run, tossed three scoreless innings from the sixth through the eighth. But the right-hander put the first two men on in the ninth, prompting Cuba to call on Yuniesky Maya to close out the game.
Orlando Miller bunted down the third base line, where Maya fielded the ball and tried to throw the runner out at third. The throw was late, loading the bases with no outs for Panama.
Maya struck out Freddy Herrera for the first out, bringing Saenz to the plate. The Dodgers infielder blooped a single to center, cutting Cuba's lead to 1. Lee, the country's top slugger, struck out on three pitches for the second out, but Maya hit Earl Agnoly with his first pitch, forcing home the tying run.
Rivera was nearly hit by two pitches during his at-bat, as he worked the count full against Maya. Rivera fouled off two pitches, then lifted a bloop to shallow center, where Gourriel caught it to send the game to extras.
"We were able to make some comebacks, but the Cuban team deserves a lot of credit," Chen said. "They kept scoring and scoring, putting us in some difficult situations."
Cuba broke the tie game in the 11th, using a hit batsman and a walk to set up RBI singles by Yolandry Garlobo and Frederich Cepeda. Maya, who blew the lead in the ninth, allowed a leadoff double by Miller in the bottom of the inning, so Cuba brought in Yadel Marti, and the 21-year-old right-hander closed it out for the save, retiring Lee for the final out.
"It was a great experience, and I hope Major League Baseball keeps doing it," Chen said. "I had a great time representing my country. I enjoyed every single minute of it, but it would have been better if we had won."
Mark Feinsand is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.