No more doubts about Cuban baseball

SAN DIEGO -- Nine outs away.

This was where the legendary Cuban National Team found itself Saturday, in a ballpark thousands of miles from home.

Nine outs away from a staggering defeat that would have sent these men home to Havana, their business unfinished, their message undelivered.

Nine outs away from their worst finish in any international baseball event in more than half a century.

Nine outs away.

But you find out a lot about players like this, about teams like this, in moments like this. And what we found out Saturday is that there's a reason Cuba has won 20 consecutive World Cups, and three Olympic gold medals, and 22 of its last 24 games in international competitions of many shapes and forms.

One minute, the Cubans trailed the Dominican Republic's fabled Dream Team, 1-0, in the seventh inning of the World Baseball Classic semifinals. Four batters later, they had stampeded from behind to take the lead. And by the time the sun dropped into the Pacific, these mysterious men from Cuba were heading for Monday night's WBC final against Japan.

We know -- and they know -- that their 3-1 victory certainly won't be viewed in many parts of the world as a great triumph for this sport.

In the Dominican, this will be looked on as nothing short of a national tragedy. And in major-league clubhouses everywhere, it will be seen as both an embarrassment and a wakeup call -- that not one freaking team of big-league All-Stars will still be playing in Monday's championship finale.

But in Cuba, they know exactly what all this means.

It means more than all the World Cups, all the Olympic medals, all those other global baseball games combined.

"This," said Cuban left fielder Frederich Cepeda, "is the greatest victory in Cuban baseball history -- because our opponents were major-league players."

And those major-league players were the men who were supposed to use this tournament to put Cuba in its place, right? Yeah, they were the kings of international baseball. But who'd they ever beat?

That was the argument, anyway. We'd all heard it a thousand times. But those Cubans had heard it a thousand times, too. And it was clear Saturday those words have been ricocheting around their heads every time they took the field in the WBC.

"This tournament was a test for Cuba," Cepeda said. "Everyone says, 'Cuba wins every time, but if they play against major-league teams, that won't happen.' But we won [last Wednesday] against Puerto Rico. We won [March 12] against Venezuela. And today we won against the Dominican Republic.

"They have major-league players," said Frederich Cepeda. "So people know now that we can play against major-league players."

They have more to prove. They have another game to play. They can't start pouring the Mojitas yet. But they wanted this stage. And they knew exactly what to do when they got there.

The Dominicans, on the other hand, didn't even do the one thing they were assembled to do -- hit.

They scored 19 runs in their first two games of the tournament. They then scored 17 in their final five games combined.

Alfonso Soriano went 0 for the WBC (0-for-12). Albert Pujols went one for his last 11. David Ortiz went one for his last 10. Ortiz and Adrian Beltre combined for four home runs in the WBC opener. The entire team combined for five in the final six games.

Not quite what was expected from a team that was supposed to throw football scores up there on WBC scoreboards in three time zones.

Asked Saturday if he thought these fabled hitters just weren't ready yet, Beltre couldn't help but laugh.

"Do I think," he asked, "or I just saw it?

"Let me ask you," Beltre went on. "When was the last time you saw Albert Pujols not get a hit in eight at-bats with men in scoring position? That doesn't happen -- not very often. But hey, no excuses. We lost."

Not many Dominican players were even available afterward, we regret to report. Clubhouses are closed after all WBC games. And the media was informed at one point that no Dominican players would be coming to the "informal interview area" where it's normally possible to speak to players outside the formal press-conference setting.

So American reporters were forced to stake out the tunnel between the clubhouse and the team bus, inhaling the sweet aroma of bus fumes in an attempt to grab a few honest thoughts from the last marquee team to get bounced from this tournament.

Fortunately, several players -- Beltre, losing pitcher Odalis Perez and second baseman Placido Polanco -- were classy enough to stop. And as gracious as they attempted to be, they knew a third-place finish was nothing to celebrate -- not for this team.

"One thing I'll say," said Perez. "Cuba is a great team. They have good players, smart players. But I'll tell you one thing. In a short tournament, anybody can win. We faced them two times. We won once [in Round 2]. They won once [Saturday]. But if we faced them 10 times ... we'd beat them nine out of 10. I really believe that.

"If we lost, we lost. But I believe the Dominican is the best in the business."

To be the best, though, you have to beat the best. And by not doing that, this team deflated a nation that was counting on winning this event -- then partying for the next three years, until the next WBC gave them a chance to do it all over again.

"I know in the Dominican right now, it's a funeral," Perez said.

But "funeral" might not have been such a figurative term for the reception the Cuban team would have gotten back home if this game, and this tournament, had turned out different. These guys give new meaning to that expression, "must-win game."

Is there anyone out there who thinks Cuba came to the WBC just to play baseball? Is there anyone naïve enough to believe Cuba didn't also come to make a statement? And is there anyone not politically aware enough to know that we're not just talking about a sports kind of statement?

We hope not. That's all we can say. We hope not.

At any rate, it was obviously no accident that the Cubans saved arguably their two best pitchers for this game with the Dominicans.

The first 4 1/3 innings were handled by 21-year-old right-hander Yadel Marti, who did what he did throughout the WBC -- put up zeroes. His ridiculous WBC totals: 12 2/3 innings, six hits, zero runs.

But Cuban manager Higinio Velez had his bullpen pumping nonstop in the first inning. And after Marti allowed a one-out single to Wily Mo Pena in the fifth, Velez waved for hulking Cuban legend Pedro Luiz Lazo -- who had thrown somewhere in the neighborhood of 786 warmup pitches by then.

Lazo is to Cuba what Roger Clemens is to America these days -- his country's greatest active pitcher. He owns 209 lifetime wins in the Cuban league, more than any current Cuban. But for the Cuban National Team, he puts away his Clemens persona -- and turns into Mariano Rivera.

Not to mention his own one-man setup crew.

So Lazo stomped to the mound, wrapped a massive bear hug around Marti and went to work.

His first challenge: a two-on, one-out mess in the fifth. He escaped that one with a stunning strikeout/caught-stealing double play. But then came even more trouble in the sixth -- nearly fatal trouble.

The Dominicans barely hit a ball hard all afternoon. But Polanco bounced a single through the middle to start the inning, and Miguel Tejada thunked a bloop single to right. So Lazo had to stare at first and third, nobody out -- with Pujols, Ortiz and Beltre looming.

It seemed just about impossible for Lazo to wriggle out of this nightmare. But amazingly, he all but pitched out of it -- until his second baseman, Yulieski Gourriel, clanked a routine, two-out roller by Beltre, then panicked and heaved it halfway to Havana.

So suddenly, it was Dominican 1, Cuba 0. And a major Dominican pep rally was bursting out in the seats.

But not for long.

Asked about the Cubans' mindset when they realized they were nine outs from defeat, Cepeda replied: "We never worried -- because we didn't have time to worry."

And the reason they didn't have time to worry is that they had wiped out that lead faster than you could say, "Fidel."

Two infield hits. One throwing error by Beltre. One Cuban manager pinch-hitting for his cleanup hitter. And one concede-the-run ground ball. That's all it took for Cuba to tie this game, 1-1.

Then the Tony Gwynn of Cuba, five-time .400 hitter Osmany Urrutia, stroked a go-ahead single through a drawn-in infield. And Cuba was ahead to stay.

The rest was essentially up to Lazo. Who stuck around until the job was done. For 14 outs -- yep, 14. For 81 pitches -- yep, 81.

They don't make closers like that in the old U.S.A., amigos.

Then again, they don't make them like that in Cuba, either.

"Lazo, he can win 20 games back in his hometown -- in a [season] of 90 games, not in a [season] of 160 games," Velez said. "When you have a starter like that, it is very difficult to use someone like this as a relief pitcher. ... But what I needed was a good stopper, a good closer, who could have good control, good courage and deal with the situation -- because it's a very stressful situation."

In Cuba, though, life itself is a very stressful situation. So these are men who don't fear this kind of stress.

"In every game we play, there is a lot of pressure," Cepeda said, "because it's sudden death. Cuba plays in sudden-death games every time we play, so we're ready for sudden death in every game we play. The Dominican team is a team of stars. But maybe their team doesn't make the playoffs, so they're not as used to sudden death as we are."

Well, maybe. But maybe it was also as simple as seeing hitters in spring-training mode facing pitchers who were literally in midseason form.

The Dominican's last big chance -- two on, one out in the eighth -- died when Ortiz popped up a hanging slider, after which Beltre lined to left. Asked if Ortiz had just missed the most hittable pitch he saw all day, Polanco answered, simply: "I don't know how ready he is."

But ready or not, the Dominicans were heading home -- or back to spring-training reality, at least. And the Cubans were still playing. Were they ever.

Playing ... and chasing a dream the rest of us can't possibly understand.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.