The 2023 World Baseball Classic is illustrating how baseball worldwide has grown. The baseball nations of the world have not only closed the competition gap but Cuba has likely put itself into a deficit on the world stage. Once the dominant country in International tournaments, Cuba did enter this WBC with it’s best roster in years and expectations to perhaps advance as far as the Semi-finals.
These hopes were buoyed by the late 2022 announcement that Cuba would incorporate exiled players from MLB and other Pro Leagues. This didn’t result in a dream team with a Big Leaguer at every position. It none the less added a lot of talent and put Cuba in a solid position at least in Pool A. The inclusion of young White Sox stars Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert specifically fortified the. lineup. A lineup which has consistently failed to slug or drive in key runs for roughly the past decade.
Cuba entered play in Taiwan with concerns over pitching depth and whether they could exorcise the demons of their nemesis in The Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Dutch eliminated Cuba in both the 2013 & 2017 Classic and what feels like every other International tournament since the 2011 Baseball World Cup. A four game round robin format leaves little margin for error and of course Cuba would face the Dutch in game one. Certain fears were assuaged but not the ones you would suspect.
Cuban Manager Armando Johnson tabbed Yariel Rodriguez as the game one starter. A bit of a surprise move as the righty from Camaguey has transitioned to the bullpen and found great success with the Chunichi Dragons of Japan. The move worked as Rodriguez went 4 innings surrendering 1 hit, 1 run while punching out 6. He featured a high 90s fastball and wipe out slider. This had social media clamouring for him to explore Major League opportunities. The hardest contact was two hit batsmen. Pitchers have a 65 pitch limit in round 1 and Rodriguez maximized this limit.
We’ve seen the World Baseball Classic become a spring board for Cubans to the U.S. however Rodriguez might be content with his current situation. The Cuban Federation sends select players to Japan who can make solid salaries in the World’s second best baseball league. Rodriguez for instance is believed to have earned $550,000 in 2022 of which the majority he is able to bring back to Cuba. It isn’t inconceivable he could be making millions soon and not have to defect from his home country. Wanting to compete on the worlds biggest stage and the even larger dollars that could accompany that might win out though.
The very 1st inning looked as if Cuba might get the Dutch monkey off their backs. Dutch starter Tom de Blok looked more like Tom de Walk and loaded the bases. Mixed in might have been the at bat that foreshadowed the misfortune about to come. Luis Robert expected by some to be the player of the tournament or at least Cuba’s most dangerous batsmen looked rusty and overanxious if not foolish in chasing pitches out of the zone. An early test failed and a huge opportunity to announce that Cuba was back fell to the wayside. Catcher Lorenzo Quintana would ground into a double play and Cuba would leave the bases loaded. Eerily reminiscent of recent failings, able to get runners on, unable to get them in. This was supposed to be fixed by the addition of MLB or at least professional bats.
Cuba was forced to make two late lineup changes. Andy Ibanez was scratched with wrist discomfort and Alfredo Despaigne didn’t feel right in batting practice. They were replaced by Yadil Mujica and Yoelkis Guibert. The Duo of course would go on to create both of and Cuba’s only two runs. Onelki Garcia would surrender 2 runs and Carlos Juan Viera another despite striking out 3 in his 1 inning of work.
The Netherlands would take game One 4 to 2 and put themselves in the drivers seat in Pool A. The top two teams advance. Taking the 1st seed is paramount though as the 2nd seed likely has a date with Japan in round two. Japan is the most dangerous squad in this bracket and is a serious threat to win the entire tournament. To be the best you have to beat the best but if you can avoid facing them before heading to Miami, nobody would question that strategy.
Losing to The Netherlands was less shocking than annoying. Shocking perhaps doesn’t begin to describe the result vs Italy in Game 2. As much as burgeoning nations such as Italy have improved since the inaugural World Baseball Classic this was a game Cuba should have and needed to dominate little yet win.
Starter Roenis Elias fresh off a dominant stint in the Dominican and pushing for a role with the Chicago Cubs gave Cuba everything they could ask for. He went 5 scoreless innings only leaving in reaching his pitch limit. Former Met Matt Harvey matched him for 3 innings. However a litany of lesser named Italian relievers held the Cuban bats in check to force extra innings. Chunichi star closer Raidel Martinez took the loss. He didn’t look great before turning it over to Onelki Garcia who grew his already bloated 18.00 ERA. Italy stunned Cuba 6-3 in 10 innings.
The real story, the missed opportunities by Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert. Robert did drive in a run late that would force extras. The Pale Hose sluggers went a combined 1 for 10 with four strikeouts and nine left on base. Seven of those runners were stranded by Moncada. My Kingdom for a clutch base hit. Instead The Kingdom of the Netherlands strengthened their grip on the top of the pool. Cuba would now need to win both of their remaining games handily and get a lot of help from the other teams.
For many players the World Baseball Classic represents their first at bats or real swings of 2023. Is rust to blame for the shaky performance in the first two games? Or are you truly only as good as your next day’s starting pitcher. Cuba didn’t look rusty and Panama’s Andy Otero was ok, but Panama’s bullpen was not. Cuba would collect a record 21 hits en route to drubbing Panama 13 to 4. Yadir Drake went a perfect 4 for 4. Late substitute Yadil Mujica has been a part of the sparse Cuban rallies and went 3 for 4. Maligned Yoan Moncada rebounded and went 3 for 5 and knocked in four.
Cuba did themselves no favours in dropping the first two games. But Pool A was considered the most balanced pool entering the 2023 World Baseball Classic. This balance saw a scenario where every team could finish 2-2. Cuba looked dead in the water earlier in the week. They still entered their final round robin matchup with Chinese Taipei still alive. Also capable of creating a wild tie breaker scenario with a win and some help from the other pool participants.
Blame the early batting struggles on rust or jet lag but the barrage that started against Panama continued vs Taiwan. Moncada would start with a ground rule double. Then Luis Robert took advantage of a throwing error before Alfredo Despaigne would plate two with a double. Erisbel Arruebarrena would then jump the yard to give Cuba a four run lead in the after one inning. Arruebarrena became the first former MLB’er to repatriate to the Cuban National Series in 2019. Leading the circuit in home runs that year, a tool he added in his time off the island.
The second inning would see Cuba score two more as Yoan Moncada hit his first home run. Meanwhile starting pitcher Elian Leyva will pitch in Taiwan this coming season. His performance didn’t ingratiate himself to the fans but appears ready to face CPBL’s best. Leyva was effective through 2.1 innings and wiggled out of trouble before an odd start to the third. Chinese Taipei had his forearm inspected for sticky substances to no avail. Oddly Leyva would face one more batter before leaving with an injury favouring the same forearm.
Miguel Romero was one of the surprise inclusions for Cuba. The Oakland prospect has electric stuff but has yet to master it, perhaps until now. Romero has been a nice bridge to Cuba’s more vaunted relievers. He struck out 4 in 2.2 Innings of scoreless emergency relief. Onelki Garcia followed with a rebound performance tossing two scoreless innings. Livan Moinelo and Raidel Martinez closed it out despite the star closer surrendering another run.
The batting carousel would eventually slow down for Cuba as they would sit on a 7-0 lead for the majority of the game. The final tally 7-1 as Taiwan did plate a lone late run. Cuba at least for two games looked as if they had found a time machine. As mentioned once on life support they at least provided a charge to their hopes of advancing.
Cuba’s gaze would turn to the matchup between The Netherlands and Italy. If the Netherlands won outright they would take the 1 seed and Cuba the 2 seed. A Dutch loss creating a wild scenario with every team finishing 2-2. An interesting runs allowed divided by total outs accumulated quotient would dictate the standings. The Dutch weren’t much and didn’t just lose to the Italians but by the perfect margin.
Italy won their way into the 2nd spot. By virtue of their 7-1 decision and run differential this vaulted Cuba to the Top spot in the pool. All of this despite or because of all five squads finishing with an identical record. Many myself included had written Cuba off after their 0-2 start. They looked lifeless and dug themselves a massive hole. To their credit they looked like world beaters in romping vs Panama and Taiwan. The rest of the bracket played out perfectly. It also played out in a manor likely few could’ve predicted or even comprehended earlier in the week.
Cuba advances to Tokyo and is in the more favourable position of the 1st seed. They avoid the literal and figurative Samurai Japanese squad. Cuba enters as the favourite against perhaps Australia or at least a country they feel better matching up against. They also automatically qualify for the next WBC. Were the last two games a sign of things to come? That Team Cuba can match up against just about anybody. That team is back on track for what many pundits said would be a successful tournament. A trip to the quarterfinals and possibly beyond for a team starting to gel. That’s why they play the games.