By Gabriel Fidler (@gabrielfidler)
Cuba avoided an early no-hit bid by Brazilian pitcher Andre Rienzo and finally broke a scoreless tie in the fifth inning. The top-ranked team in the world would go on to win 5-2, dropping baseball Cinderella Brazil to 0-2 in the World Baseball Classic.
Cuba was supposed to rely on its sluggers to propel them easily out of Pool A and into the second round, but then Brazil was never supposed to be in the World Baseball Classic to begin with. After three consecutive upsets in qualifying and giving No. 3 Japan a good scare in game one of the Classic, many of Brazil’s doubters had begun to take them seriously.
No one, though, could have predicted it would hold one of the world’s best offences hitless for 4 1/3 innings and force Cuba to rely on sacrifice bunts and the hit-and-run to score.
Rienzo got off to a wild start, walking two in the first inning. He gave up a third base on balls in the second, working around a runner on third with only one out to get out the jam.
Cuban ace Ismel Jiménez looked more in command, though he hit a batter in the first inning and got into trouble himself in the second. With one out, Tiago Magalhães stroked a double to left center and J.C. Múñiz followed with a one-base knock. After a strikeout, Múñiz was caught stealing second and Jiménez was out of the predicament.
By this point, Rienzo had settled down, retiring the side in order in the third and fourth. Though Jiménez had his K ball working, Brazil looked like it would threaten in third, as Felipe Burin and qualifier MVP Leonardo Reginatto both rapped singles up the middle. Rienzo buckled down on Daniel Matsumoto, Brazil’s cleanup hitter, and induced a fly out to end the threat.
The out seemed to focus Cuba’s starter, who needed only 11 pitches to get out of the fourth.
The red-and-blue finally solved Rienzo in the fifth. José Fernández, who leads the Cuban National Series in average (.393), worked a walk and took third one out later on a single by the nine-hole hitter, Bárbaro Arruebarruena.
Rienzo was up against the pitch limit, and leadoff hitter Guillermo Heredia would be his last before WBC rules forced him out of the game. The tension built as Heredia worked the count full, and on the decisive pitch, Rienzo induced a ground ball to the right of second that looked ideal for a twin killing.
Instead, Burin, the second baseman, took too long to get to the bag, and Arruebarruena, who had been moving on the hit-and-run play, was safe. Burin could only direct the flip from Márcio Tanaka to first for a single out. Fernández scored on the mental error, giving Cuba the 1-0 lead.
With a second chance in the frame, Alexei Bell greeted reliever Ernesto Noris with a run-scoring single to plate Arruebarruena. After stealing second, Noris generated a fly ball from superstar Yuliesky Gourriel to get out of the inning with the score at 2-0.
Jiménez finally ran out of pitches after two quick outs in the bottom of the fifth, but Freddy Álvarez entered and got the third out.
Barry Larkin called in Gabriel Asakura, a college hurler, to face the 4-5-6 hitters, no doubt hoping to recapture some of the magic from the righty’s appearance in Panamá City when he struck out 5-of-8 batters. Instead, future Cuban Hall-of-Famer Frederich Cepeda ripped a single to left and moved up a base on José Dariel Abreu’s single. Asakura then hit Alfredo Despaigne before he was yanked.
Hugo Kanabushi was the next pitcher out of the ‘pen and gave up a run on a ground ball that erased Abreu. After a single reloaded the bases, Larkin replaced the southpaw with Kesley Kondo. Kondo promptly gave up a two-run single to Arruebarrueno and the Cuba lead grew to five.
Kondo would get the second out, but after walking Bell, Larkin would dip into his bullpen for the fourth time in the inning and bring out Carlos Yoshimura. Yoshimura, who had a standout performance in the 2003 Baseball World Cup, struck out Gourriel, but the damage had been done.
Brazil showed plenty of pluck when they came to bat in the bottom of the sixth. Burin worked a walk and Reginatto tapped a ball to the left side that advanced Burin, but reached safely when Abreu dropped the throw.
With Cuba breathing new life into the blue-and-gold attack, Matsumoto struck for his first hit in the tourney, knocking home Burin on the infield single between first and second. Reginatto showed heads-up baserunning, scampering to third.
Reinaldo Sato stepped in against Álvarez, who promptly stopped the rally with a tailor-made 5-4-3 double play. Reginatto scored on the grounder, but Brazil had palpably lost the momentum. The Cuban hurler got Magalhães to ground out and end the threat.
Yoshimura gave up a single to Cepeda and a double to pinch hitter Yasmany Tomás, but got a strikeout and a ground out to escape the jam.
Múñiz was the first man up in the seventh for Brazil, and ripped a ball down the left field line for what appeared to be a double. After reaching second, new Cuban pitcher Raciel Iglesías threw to the second baseman Fernández, and the umpire singled the out. It was revealed that Múñiz had missed first base on his sprint to second, though replays were inconclusive at best.
The further blow to Brazil’s confidence was obvious, and Iglesías settled down to retire seven of the next eight batters, five on strikeouts. Yoshimura and Thyago Vieira each threw a scoreless inning for Brazil to end the contest in favour of Cuba, 5-2.
Jiménez, who paces the Cuban circuit in wins this season, earned the victory with 4 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out six. He did not walk a batter and scattered four hits. Álvarez earned a hold in his inning and one-third, though he allowed a walk, a hit, and two unearned runs. Iglesías more than earned the save with three scoreless frames, striking out the side in the ninth.
“Jimenez made pitches when he had to,” observed Larkin frankly in the post-game press conference.
Larkin used seven pitchers to evade the Cuban attack, which did have only one extra base hit. Rienzo took the loss despite give up one hit in 4 2/3 innings as he walked four and allowed two runs to score. He whiffed two. Blue-and-gold hurlers walked five and hit two batters.
Matsumoto was the only Brazilian to garner two hits, though he left three men on base. Burin reached base in two plate appearances, while Reginatto extended his WBC hitting streak to five games. Leadoff hitter Paulo Orlando struck out three times.
It is worth noting that Múñiz and Noris were the first Cuban defectors to ever face their homeland in a baseball game. Both played for several years in the National Series before leaving for Brazil.
Arruebarruena, in his first appearance with the national team, stroked two hits and plated a pair, scoring once. Cepeda was the only other Cuban hitter with a hitting brace. The top three hitters in the lineup were 1-for-13 and left nine men on base.
“Once again, it was a very competitive ballgame,” commented Larkin. “They came up with a couple big hits.”
Brazil will face China on Mar. 5 at 8 a.m. GMT. The blue-and-gold must win the game to avoid relegation to the qualifying rounds. A win would ensure that the team will appear in the 2017 WBC. Stay tuned for more news, reviews, and analysis.