HAVANA — After a 16-year hiatus in the international friendly series between the two traditional baseball powers, Cuba and the United States weren’t about to let a rain delay of nearly two hours spoil the drama between the lines.
The USA Baseball Collegiate National Team broke a scoreless tie in the top of the sixth inning when Michael Conforto (Oregon State) launched a grand slam and was able to hold off a furious rally late in the game by Cuba to hold on for a 4-3 win in the first contest of a five-game series.
“I am very proud of this group and what we accomplished tonight,” Team USA manager Dave Serrano said. “It was an exciting win for a team that had to work through some tough circumstances, traveling in the morning, going through customs and then having a long delay before the game. They fought through it and stayed together though.
“Being able to have two great ambassadors in the sport of baseball meet up after such a long layoff was special. I thought tonight’s game showed the world why these two countries should play each other each and every year.”
Despite having to wait out a lengthy pregame delay, pitching in front of a raucous crowd at Latin American Stadium and facing a Cuban lineup featuring all of its big-name stars, Jonathon Crawford (Florida) rose to the challenge out-dueled Yadiel Pedroso to lead the Collegiate National Team to its first win over Cuba since 1996 and first over the Cubans in their home country since 1993 in Sancti Spiritus.
Crawford finished with 6.1 strong innings, striking out six, walking two and allowing just two runs on four hits. He matched Pedroso pitch-for-pitch in the early goings as both hurlers tossed zeroes up in the first five frames.
In the top of the sixth though, Team USA finally started to put some pressure on offensively as Kyle Farmer (Georgia) and Trea Turner (North Carolina State) singled and walked, respectively, to put two runners on base and force Cuba to make a move to the bullpen.
Although Johnny Field (Arizona) greeted Joel Suarez with a long drive to left, it fell just shy of the wall on the warning track for the second out of the inning. A heads-up play by Farmer and Turner ensued, however, as they were both able to tag up and advance 90 feet into scoring position.
That would turn out to be a big play in Thursday’s game as Cuba then decided to intentionally walk D.J. Peterson (New Mexico) to load the bases with two outs. That decision immediately proved fruitful for Team USA as Conforto turned on a 1-1 slider from new relief pitcher Norberto Gonzalez and deposited it five rows deep into the rightfield stands for a grand slam.
Holding a 4-0 lead all of a sudden, Crawford continued to keep the momentum on the U.S. side of the field as he retired the side in the home half of the frame on just four pitches.
Cuba wasn’t going to go down without putting up a fight, however, and Frederich Cepeda got his team on the scoreboard in the bottom of the seventh with a two-run homerun that just evaded the glove of a leaping Austin Cousino (Kentucky) over the 380-foot marker in left-center.
The next batter singled through the right side of the infield to end Crawford’s evening, but Daniel Berg (UCLA) came out of the bullpen to induce an inning-ending, 5-4-3 double play and keep the damage to the minimum.
Cuba kept the pressure on in the eighth, taking advantage of a pair of U.S. miscues in the field and using a two-strike sacrifice bunt to put two runners in scoring position with just one out. Yulieski Gourriel then punched an RBI single back up the middle, but a strong throw from Cousino in center held Cuba to just one run on the play.
Team USA then turned to Bobby Wahl (Mississippi) to escape the jam and he struck out both Alfredo Despaigne and Jose Abreu swinging with the tying run at third and go-ahead run at first to keep the U.S. lead intact.
The Cubans threatened again in the bottom of the ninth with Cepeda drawing a leadoff walk but Wahl did his job again, getting Alexei Bell to fly out to left and Erisbel Arruebarruena to hit into a game-ending, 4-3 double play.
The United States and Cuba will square off again at 8 p.m. on Friday night at Latin American Stadium with Marco Gonzales (Gonzaga) and Ordrisamer Despaigne set to battle it out on the mound.