Cuba readjusts and survives

Tim Brown
Yahoo! SportsMarch 17, 2009

SAN DIEGO – For one cool night, playing from a place few of us would likely understand, the Cuban national team did not lose.

For the young and grown men in those well-traveled red uniforms, the chaperons in the red windbreakers, the drawn and grayed man who holds the lineup card, there can only be winning and the time spent waiting on the next win.

Unless there is a loss, another one, and then the time appears to pass much differently.

Lineups change. Schedules change. Habits change. The story, of course, doesn't.

"It was our turn," catcher Ariel Pestano said late Monday night. "We played better."

Not quite 30 hours after losing to Japan again, the Cubans beat Mexico. It meant they'd stick around, play Tuesday night's Japan-Korea loser, see if it wouldn't be their turn again.

Certainly the WBC is a far more interesting place with Cuba in it, more so when the program begins to edge toward desperation. It played not to be eliminated and won with ease against a Mexican team whose previous offense apparently was a product of a small ballpark and kind atmospheric friction. It will play from the same place Wednesday night, with a lineup it would not reveal, with a pitcher who until the required moment will go nameless.

It's just the way it is.

For a night, the top step of their dugout was the place to be, right alongside Fidel Castro's son, Tony, the team doctor, and they applauded every sign of hope.

The team of regular World Cup championships (25 of them) and routine Olympic gold medals (three), suddenly hasn't won either since 2005, and was second in the inaugural WBC three years ago.

So it seemed with more than simple pleasure the Cuban players gathered on the Petco Park mound around Pedro Lazo, their long-time relief pitcher, around their victory, and around the very welcome notion there'll be at least another couple days spent here.

"Well," Lazo said, "one of us had to stay."

In the span of only a few hours Sunday, or in the time it took Daisuke Matsuzaka to push them to the verge of the unthinkable, so much seemed to change for the Cubans.

By Monday night, when they stood a loss to Mexico from finishing seventh in a 16-team tournament, they'd altered their batting practice routine, and they'd pushed around the names on their lineup card, and they'd learned they would have to do without two relievers they'd expected to have because of a clerical error.

In what amounted to the intrigue of the day, and based apparently on incorrect information he received during first-round games in Mexico City, Cuba manager Higinio Velez employed two pitchers beyond their pitch limits Sunday, if, that is, he wanted to use either on Monday. By one pitch each. A Cuban delegation met for about 15 minutes Monday with officials from Major League Baseball and the players' union regarding the eligibility of lefty Yulieski Gonzalez and righty Yunieski Maya, a meeting that didn't end well for the Cubans.

The end result: Velez had used both in a losing – and, by the end, a clearly lost – effort to Japan and would have neither in a game he absolutely had to win against Mexico.

The explanation: WBC rules stipulate a pitcher who throws 30-or-more pitches cannot be used the following day.

Cuba's somewhat plausible explanation: An official person had handed them an unofficial list of tournament guidelines during the first round, held in Mexico City. The rule as stated on what was supposed to be a convenient reference guide: A pitcher cannot throw more than 30 pitches and be used the next day. That's very different, of course.

Gonzalez and Maya threw exactly 30 pitches each against Japan. Maya was removed in the eighth inning in the middle of a count.

According to Gene Orza, the union official who met with the Cubans on Monday evening, the inaccurate card had been translated to Spanish and supplied to teams from Mexico and Cuba. Cuba also had been provided an official (and accurate) set of rules long before its first-round games and had been advised in person of the (accurate) rules, Orza said.

"Some enterprising person in Mexico City thought it would be a good idea," Orza said. "The execution was lacking."

Upon being told they would play Mexico without the two relievers, Orza said, the Cubans, "were quite gracious about it."

Ultimately, Velez accepted the explanation.

"They apologized to us," Velez said. "And we do recognize here in public that all of these officials have been respectful."

Still, the controversy and its outcome was another variable to navigate between the Japan loss and the next first pitch. Velez reworked his batting order to better suit the cavernous Petco. Then, Velez broke his pattern and had his team take pregame batting practice out in the open, where, you know, anybody could just watch. The Cubans also took pregame infield, which hardly anyone does, and they apparently don't do regularly.

Things change, though. Results change. Even for the program that doesn't.