Pinch Hitter Gawain Owen is in Haarlem Holland and is following Team Cuba. Here is his Honkbal Opening Weekend WrapUp.
Cuba once the bastions of International baseball tournaments such as Haarlem baseball week have been on a trend of diminishing returns for the past decade. This is attributable to huge losses of talent. But at the same time, the rest of the world has caught up at the same time. The Antilleans will be in tough in the opening bracket, Get Inside the Dugout and find out how they fared.
Cuba opened it’s account in Haarlem with a 5-1 loss against a very strong Netherlands team. Whilst for some this could be a surprise. It should also be remembered that Cuba has not beaten the Netherlands since 2015.
Team Netherlands are one of the tournament favourites with several ex Major Leaguers Roger Bernadina and CoCo Balentein. If this was not hard enough the team opened with a veteran of the Dutch League Dennis Burgersdijk. He held Team Cuba to 1 run in 4 innings. It has not been mentioned before but Honkbal Week works under the international tournament rules. Games are 7 innings instead of 9. I will not claim to know all of the quirks in the rules. But for me this takes away the strategic part of a nine inning game.
The winners of Serie Nacional 61 quickly came back down to earth. They trailed by one run after the first inning. With DH in place for this tournament the Netherlands utilised this well. While Balentein dominated the pitchers with 3 hits from 4 ab’s. In addition the majority of the Dutch line up enjoyed seeing the 5 cuban pitchers they faced with 10 hits. After Cuba equalised in the bottom of the 2nd, the game remained close until the top of the 7th. Roger Bernadina launched a 3 run homerun. This proved too much for the nearly silent Cuban bats who could only muster 5 hits of seven innings.
There is no rest for the wicked as Cuba quickly pivots to face Japan. They defeated the tournament favourites USA 1-0 in extra innings in their opener. With the need to finish in the top 4 to move into the medal round it is critical that Team Cuba delivers it’s first win of the tournament.
In short Cuba lost it’s second game of Honkbal Week and fell to 0-2 in the tournament. This second loss means Cuba is now fighting for its survival. Only the top 4 teams progress to the medal round.
As a longtime watcher of international baseball the style of play is very different to what you see in MLB. In short the game is a lot more tactical. The Japanese understand they can’t swing for the fences and therefore are the masters of the small game. They tactically move runners around the bases with expertise. The run Japan scored in the 2nd was a perfect example where they used a sac fly and sac bunt to move the runner around.
Starting for Cuba was the Sancti Spiritus pitcher Yuen Socarras. He did a fine job in holding the Japanese to one run over 5 stellar innings. Using a mid 80’s fastball and mixing in a variety of pitches he managed to work out of a few jams. Socarras held the Japanese to 5 hits over 5 innings.
As is often the case in international tournaments the bats failed to support the work by Socarras. They were frankly were fooled by the 3 Japanese pitchers they faced over 7 innings. Whilst the starter Shota Watanabe was not over powering he had a variety of pitches. This continually kept Cuba on the back foot and ensured they had to manufacture runs. Cuba did manage to place 3 runs on the board in the 3rd inning. Cuba capitalized on the lead off walk to Benitez. Both Prieto and Moas got hits. Moas drove in Benitez and then a choppy hit over the 3rd base for Abreu drove in 2 more runs. This gave Cuba a 3-1 advantage.
Whilst Japan claimed a run back in the bottom of the 3rd what can’t be avoided is 8 of the 9 Cuban batters had a strikeout and often looked over matched at the plate by all 3 Japanese pitchers they faced.
With Cuba still leading 3-2 going into the bottom of the 6th the wheels came off quickly. Socarras allowed 2 singles and with Pavel Hernandez called into the game in relief, he gifted the game to the Japanese with a wild pitch to score a run and then a walk with the bases loaded. This gave Japan a one run advantage with Cuba only have 3 outs to rescue this mistake.
The Japanese closer Hashimotoi dominated in the top of the seventh with Benitez, Prieto and Sanchez looking over matched. With this victory Japan move to 3-0 and it leaves Cuba exposed at the bottom of the standings.
Next up for Cuba is Team USA in the evening game in Haarlem. It is critical that Cuba win this game. It will be very hard to come back from 0-3 and move into the medal round.