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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

US breezes past Cuba and into World Baseball Classic final

Paul Goldschmidt and Team USA are headed to the WBC championship game for a second straight tournament.

By James Wagner

It was a historic night, with the Cuban national baseball team playing in the city with the largest Cuban population in the United States, but the game itself was unable to match the intensity of the moment. Behind its star-studded offense, the United States dismantled Cuba 14-2 at loanDepot Park in Miami on Sunday and advanced to the World Baseball Classic final.

Trea Turner, the Philadelphia Phillies shortstop whose grand slam Saturday propelled the United States to the semifinal, homered twice against Cuba. He drove in four runs in all, as did first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. And Goldschmidt’s St. Louis Cardinals teammate, starter Adam Wainwright, led the United States pitching staff by allowing one run over four innings.

The United States, which won the WBC when it was last played in 2017, will now face the victor of Monday night’s semifinal game between Mexico and Japan. The final will be tonight.

“I haven’t hit a homer in spring training in like four or five years or something like that,” Turner said, referring to the fact that the WBC occurs during Major League Baseball’s preseason. “So it’s kind of funny how it works out, but I don’t ask questions. I just go up there and hopefully it continues on. We need one more win, so let’s get that.”

It was the Cuban team’s first visit to Miami since the communist revolution in Cuba in 1959 and the sellout crowd of 35,779 on Sunday showed the range of feelings about the presence of the team, which is viewed as an extension of the country’s government. Donning Cuban flags and shirts, fans cheered for the team after the national anthem was played before the first pitch or big moments on the field.

But throughout the game, many fans also sang opposition chants such as “libertad!” (liberty) or “patria y vida” (homeland and life), an inversion of the Cuban revolutionary motto of “patria o muerte” (homeland or death).

“We have heard that,” Cuba manager Armando Johnson said. “But I was not paying attention to that. We were focused on the job we wanted to perform. It didn’t go well for us.”

During the sixth inning, a protester with a sign that called for liberty for Cubans ran onto the field to applause from fans. He was tackled by security guards and taken off the field. Two more fans ran onto the field in the following innings. And late in the game, Cuban pitchers in the bullpen in right field signaled that something had been thrown into their area from the stands.

But there was also a lot of vocal support for the United States. With every run or hit — and there were plenty of both — fans cheered and waved the flag. “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants broke out in the first inning when Turner fielded a ground ball and threw to first base for an out.

“I’ve pitched in some big spots,” said Wainwright, who earned a World Series ring in 2006. “Never in front of a crowd like that tonight. That was the most crazy environment I’ve played in. Unbelievably blessed to have been a part of that game.”

Before the game, United States third baseman Nolan Arenado, who is of Cuban descent, said he had a long talk with his family about playing against Cuba.

“There’s a lot of anxious feelings,” he said, adding later, “If it wasn’t for the sacrifices my grandparents made to get here for my parents, I don’t know if I would have been the player that I am today. So there’s a lot of feelings I feel toward it. I respect them, I respect the players, but we have a job to do.”

Despite help from players in MLB organizations — a recent change in the Cuban Federation Baseball’s policy — the Cuban team was still no match for the United States’ squad. Because so many players had defected to play in MLB in the United States, the once-mighty Cuban team had faded on the international baseball stage. An injection of talent for this WBC boosted Cuba to the semifinals.

But a United States lineup of All-Stars and MVP award winners scored runs against all seven Cuban pitchers who appeared in Sunday’s game. Cuba jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning, an advantage that barely lasted because Goldschmidt clobbered a two-run home run in the bottom half of the frame.

“After the home run, the first thing he does,” Wainwright said of Goldschmidt, “he goes right to me and he says, ‘We got you.’”

Added Goldschmidt, the 2022 National League MVP: “That was one of my favorite home runs I’ve ever hit in my entire life.”

Their Cardinals teammate Miles Mikolas followed with four strong innings, allowing the United States lineup to keep scoring. Turner, the ninth and last hitter in the lineup, smashed a solo shot in the second inning and added a three-run blast in the sixth, capping his second straight game with four RBIs. And in two days, Turner said he hoped for more.

“I like playing baseball, competing and coming out on top,” he said. “We’re playing good baseball right now so one more to go and hopefully those stats keep coming and that’s a good thing for Team USA.”

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