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USA Collegiate National Team defeats Cuba 5-4

HAVANA — Facing a team featuring all of Cuba’s top players in front of a spirited crowd at Latin American Stadium, the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team closed out a hotly-contested five-game series — the first against Cuba in 16 years — with a thrilling, 5-4, come-from-behind victory.

“What an incredible week of baseball,” Team USA manager Dave Serrano said. “I could not be more proud of this team and how it stood toe-to-toe with the best players Cuba has to offer, which are some of the best in the world as they showed this week. All five games were close, hard-fought ballgames which shows the level of talent we have on our team as well.

“The past five days have been a great experience, both on the baseball field and off. The return of this series is much-needed for the sport and I credit the USA and Cuban baseball federations for putting it back together. The adversity we have had to overcome and the lessons we learned this week in Havana will pay huge dividends as we turn our attention to the ultimate goal of winning the gold medal at the Honkball Tournament in the Netherlands.”

Trailing by one going into the eighth inning, Team USA rattled off three runs to take a 5-3 lead and held off a late push by Cuba to bookend the series with wins.

The U.S. used a walk and a pair of hit batters to load the bases before Trea Turner (North Carolina State) was hit by a pitch as well to force in a run and cut the deficit to a single run. Johnny Field (Arizona) then struck the big blow, stroking a two-run single to center to give the red, white and blue the lead.

After getting three straight groundouts to record a clean seventh inning, Jonathon Crawford (Florida) worked around a single, a pair of walks and an RBI groundout to keep the U.S. lead intact through the eighth, 5-4.

Bobby Wahl (Mississippi) then came on to close out the game, striking out two in the bottom of the ninth to finish off Team USA’s second win over Cuba. Just like the first contest in the series, Crawford earned the win with Wahl posting the save.

Making the start for Team USA was Carlos Rodon (North Carolina State). The Baseball America Freshman of the Year and Golden Spikes Award finalist delivered six quality innings, striking out four and allowing just three runs on eight hits.

Cuba got the scoring started on Monday when Alfredo Despaigne launched a solo home run in the bottom of the second. Team USA answered right back, however, putting together a two-run, two-out rally

Austin Cousino (Kentucky) got the ball rolling with a two-out single to right. D.J. Peterson (New Mexico) then drew a four-pitch walk to set up Michael Conforto (Oregon State) to drive in Cousino from second with a single back up the middle. Kris Bryant (San Diego) followed with another base hit to load the bases for Marco Gonzales (Gonzaga) who drew a run-scoring walk.

In the fifth, Cuba took advantage of a generous call at second that extended the inning to regain the lead, 3-2.

Aledmis Diaz started the frame by pulling a leadoff double into the corner in right. He took a big turn at second and the throw beat him back to the base, but he was ruled safe on a bang-bang play at the bag. Serrano came out to dispute the decision and was ejected before making it all the way to second.

That call would prove costly for Team USA as it quickly got what would have been the second and third outs before Cuba punched three straight singles with the last one, by Frederich Cepeda, driving in two runs to give Cuba the lead and set up the dramatic eighth-inning rally by the United States.

Over the course of the series, a total of 35 players saw action for the Cuban team which routinely switched out eight pitchers from its 24-man roster each game, using 17 different pitchers in the five games. Included among that list were 12 players who have competed in the World Baseball Classic, four of which have done so twice.

Team USA will spend the next few days traveling as it heads across the Atlantic Ocean to compete in the Haarlem Honkbal Week in the Netherlands. Prior to beginning action in the biggest international baseball competition of the year, the U.S. squad will play an exhibition game on Thursday, June 12. The following day, the U.S. will begin the competition with a contest against Japan.

The U.S. will not have to wait long to face the Cuban team again, as the two squads will play for the sixth time on June 14. The United States will also square off with Puerto Rico, Taiwan and the Netherlands before the medal-round games begin on Friday, July 20.

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