Before I get on to my thoughts on a truly great win against Cuba, I have to say that the most shocking thing of this entire tournament to me is not that we’re playing Brazil in the finals (shocking enough), but that the Venezuelan organizing committee actually kept their word on something. Before this second two-game phase in which we played Colombia and Cuba, the officials told me that only these two games would count towards advancement to the finals. This was clearly in an effort to set up a Venezuela-Cuba final that they could play in San Cristobal. If they had taken all 5 games into account, there was still a chance we could have advanced to the final with a loss to Cuba based on a runs allowed tie breaker. This way, though, a loss to Cuba would guarantee their place in the finals and ours in the third place game. What they didn’t take into account, however, was that their own country might get beaten by either the 3 or 4 seed from our original pool which is exactly what happened when the Brazilians got them 11-10 the other night. Had they gone with the 5-game method, they’d have been here anyway being the only team with one loss, but they wanted to try to knock us out and it backfired bigtime. Still, I was expecting to hear that they were going to be in the finals anyway, but to my complete surprise, the organizers kept their word and have us playing Brazil for gold and have Venezuela playing Cuba for bronze. So that’s the big shock. Now it’s our job to make sure there’s not a bigger shock on Saturday night by taking care of business against Brazil and leaving Barquisimeto after two years with a 15-0 record and two sets of gold medals.
As for the team’s tremendous game on Thursday night, I am very proud of our men. I can’t imagine too many teams come back from a 5-1 deficit to the Cubans on any level, but that’s what this team did. Cuba, of course, was in their ridiculours reds while we got to use our Gray-Blue combo that was so successful against them on several occasions last year. The game started off very tight as both starting pitchers were on. The two lefties of Cuban descent (Paco Rodriguez’s father is a Cuban American) were hitting their spots and commanding their breaking balls and the hitters were certainly at a disadvantage. We got a little lead and they came right back to tie it and then took a lead themselves. The lead ballooned to 5-1 through 5 after a few uncharacteristic defensive lapses for the USA. It was the top of the 6th where this team had their "exclusive moment" as coach Hatch calls it. We got a few hits, took advantage of some Cuban miscues, and tied it right back up. To answer right back was awesome and it was capped off by a ringing double to left center by pinch hitter Austin Maddox.
Lefty Colton Cain then took the mound behind Paco’s five inning outing. He absolutely shut the Cubans down the rest of the way. They were able to pick up an unearned run late in the game on a couple of bunt singles and an error or two by us, but he was otherwise dominant. It was impressive to see a kid come into that situation and match the gravity of it all with his performance. He was able to get a win on top of everything because the team continued to pour it on at the plate by scoring 6 more runs and running through the Cuban bullpen. Zach Vincej, a defensive substitute the inning before, got things started with a leadoff double and the rest of the team followed suit. He capped it all off on his second at bat of the inning, a tremendous, nine-pitch effort that included several two-strike foul balls to fight off good pitches before stroking a two-run single up the middle. All in all, Zach ended up going 3-3 in the game, which started in the 6th inning for him. When it was all said and done, it was a truly impressive, hard-fought, come-from-behind, TEAM victory for the USA to give us a chance to play for the gold, and it couldn’t have come against a better opponent. If you are fortunate enough to get a chance to play for USA Baseball in your career, you can’t ask for anything more.
With the Cuba game behind us, we got a chance to practice on Friday and relax a little. We took a trip to the big mall where the kids got a chance to get some family time in and to just be kids. Randal Grichuk, who eats more than anyone I’ve ever seen without an ounce of fat on their body, got a big old banana split and Colton Cain, the guy who just shut down the vaunted Cubans the night before, took a spin on the Barbie motorcycles on the merry-go-round. We headed back home for the McDonald’s the team earned the night before and held our last session of Kangaroo Court. There were some pretty funny accusations being thrown about and they’ll stay within the walls of room 8-3, but we can reveal the identity of the second judge who had to step in to oversee a case in which first judge, Scuba Steve Patterson was put on trial. It was none other than our Venezuelan protector, his honor Alvaro Vega. I’m glad we’ll never have to be subject to his gavel or overall look again.