March 9, 2006

Wins put Cuba, Puerto Rico in pole position

By Enrique Martel

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - Cuba edged past Panama
8-6 and host team Puerto Rico powered ahead of the Netherlands
8-3 on Wednesday in Pool C competition of the inaugural World
Baseball Classic.

It took just one game for Cuba to showcase its newest star,
but 11 innings and five pitchers to survive the team's opener.

Expectations about the performance of the young Cuban
players -- the Olympic champions -- have been overshadowed by
speculation about possible defections of prized athletes from
the communist-ruled island.

Cuba's Frederich Cepeda delivered the game-winning RBI to
give his team the victory at San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

Before losing its second game in the Classic, to severely
hurt its chances of advancing to the second round, a defiant
Panama squad gave Cuba one of its toughest fights in a ballpark
in recent memory.

The two teams gave plenty of thrills to the 6,129-strong
crowd. Nine relievers were used in total by both teams, who
also combined to give up 21 hits, 14 runs, and hit seven
batters with a pitch. Neither team made an error.

Panama dropped to 0-2 and will face the Netherlands in its
next game Friday. Cuba will look for its second win against the
Netherlands Thursday.

If there was one headliner, it was Cuba's 21-year-old
infielder Yulieski Gourriel who went 3-4 with four RBIs and
made more than one dazzling play with his glove to lead Cuba to
victory in the first tournament it has played against Major
League stars.

Gourriel hit a two-RBI homerun in the top of the ninth to
break a tie and put Cuba ahead by two runs, 6-4. He also made a
running catch in short centerfield in the bottom of the ninth
to prevent Panama from scoring a game-winning run.

"If they give him an opportunity to be in the big leagues,
he's going to be a fine Major Leaguer," Panama's starting
pitcher Bruce Chen of the Baltimore Orioles said of Gourriel.

"He's young, he's going to get better, and hopefully he's
going to have the opportunity. I was very impressed with him,"
added Chen, who credited Gourriel with Cuba's win.

In the day's only other game in San Juan, Puerto Rico's
slugging power eclipsed a sloppy defense by the Netherlands to
give the hometown team a solid victory and an almost certain
berth in the second round.

The Netherlands fell to 0-2 and face elimination against
Cuba in Thursday's lone game of Pool C competition.

With their team already up 5-3, Major Leaguers Ivan
Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran of Puerto Rico hit back-to-back
solo homers in the seventh inning to put the game out of reach.