Win sends strong message to world

SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Cuba has won three out of four Olympic gold medals in baseball, 25 of the 28 World Cups and 9 of 12 Intercontinental Cups. It is now on the brink of winning the first World Baseball Classic.

In short order, Cuba has dominated world baseball.

Nevertheless, Cuba's 3-1 triumph over the Dominican Republic in Saturday's WBC semifinal is the island's biggest win yet. And they've been playing for over 150 years.

"This is the greatest victory in Cuban baseball. This is more important than when we won the Olympic Games, the World Cups or the Intercontinental Cups," said outfielder Frederich Cepeda, who is the only player to hit safely in all seven games of the WBC. "Just the fact that we played against great major-league players, this win makes us even more noticed. It's the greatest thing that has happened to us."

The Classic is the first baseball tournament that matches major-league players with other professional leagues, such as in Japan and South Korea.

Cuba eliminated professionalism when Fidel Castro declared a communist government on the island 45 years ago. Reaching the final comes as a surprise, particularly when Cuba entered the 16-nation tournament fielding their traditionally amateur-level team.

After beating Panama and Holland in its first two WBC games, Cuba got lit up by Puerto Rico, 12-2. The loss reinforced the belief the Cubans were not ready for big-league competition.

But Cuba recovered, and in the second round, they topped Venezuela and Puerto Rico to make it into the semifinals.

On Saturday, right-handers Yadel Martí and Pedro Lazo combined to shut down the powerful Dominican bats and drive Cuba into the final against the winner of Korea and Japan.

"This is huge for the Cuban people, who on occasion had their doubts that we would be able to match up against the major leaguers. Our country has to be very happy," said designated hitter Yoandry Garlobo, who racked three hits against the Dominican and is the tournament's leading hitter (.750 average).

Those Cuban "amateurs" not only advanced to the final, but they did so with a measure of revenge. They beat a Dominican team that had beaten them 7-3 in the second round.

And this was a Dominican team with some of the highest-paid players in the game: first baeman Albert Pujols ($100 million for seven years), second baseman Miguel Tejada ($72 million for six years), third baseman Adrian Beltré ($64 million for five years), and Saturday´s starting pitcher Bartolo Colón ($52 million for four years).

In addition, there are infielders Alfonso Soriano ($10 million in 2006) and Plácido Polanco ($18.4 million for four years), pitcher Odalis Perez ($24 million for three years), designated hitter David Ortiz ($12.5 million for two years) and outfielder Moisés Alou ($6 million in 2006).

"Cuba has sent a strong message to the rest of the baseball world, but this is a message that we have been sending for quite some time now, not only in 2006," said Cepeda. "Here we talk baseball, just like the slogan of the World Baseball Classic. And baseball is baseball, it doesn't matter the price paid to the athletes that play it."

Enrique Rojas is a reporter and columnist for ESPNdeportes.com and ESPN.com.