A group of U.S. minor league baseball players today achieved something no U.S. amateur team had accomplished in 12 years, something a major league team, playing on its home field, could not accomplish in May: A victory over the vaunted Cuban national team.
Catcher Marcus Jensen's three-run home run with one out in the top of the ninth inning broke a 5-5 tie and propelled the Americans to a 10-5 comeback victory in Pan American Games pool play at CanWest Global Park.
Jensen's home run -- his third in two games here -- was the biggest of 19 hits the U.S. team pounded out against five pitchers from a Cuban team widely considered to be better than the one that battered the Baltimore Orioles, 12-6, in an exhibition game May 3 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It also occurred shortly after U.S. Manager Buddy Bell was ejected.
The last time Cuba faced the United States was in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, a 10-8 Cuban victory in pool play. The United States had not beaten Cuba in a major international competition since 1987, when Jim Abbott led a 6-4 victory in pool play at the Pan Am Games in Indianapolis.
Cuba has won the baseball gold medal in the past seven Pan American Games.
"You can't make [the victory] too important, but it is pretty important," U.S. first baseman Craig Paquette said. "It shows that we can play with Cuba and beat Cuba, if we get to the medal round and face them again. It also showed them that we can play too. I expect to play them again."
Of course, the U.S. players would prefer to have that matchup be in the gold-medal game, rather than the semifinals. Only the top two finishers in the Pan Am Games will advance to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
The pool-play games determine matchups for the quarterfinals, which will begin Saturday. The top four teams from Pool A will advance to the quarterfinals. The United States is 2-1, with a game remaining against Brazil (0-3) Thursday evening. Cuba (2-1) will play Canada on Thursday; Canada improved to 3-0 in the group by beating Mexico, 3-1. Mexico is now 1-3.
To avoid a potential semifinal with the Cubans, the United States must finish pool play one place ahead of them or one place behind them; for example, if the Americans finish first, the Cubans must finish second.
If the United States, Cuba and Canada finish pool play tied for first place in their group, which seems likely, the tiebreaker will be each team's net run differential in the games among those teams. Because of its five-run victory over Cuba and one-run loss to Canada on Monday, the U.S. team's run differential against those teams is plus-4.
All of that would have been moot today had it not been for Jensen, who had two home runs and five RBI in the U.S. team's 5-1 win over Mexico on Tuesday.
"I haven't hit enough home runs to go on a tear," said Jensen, who has five home runs for Class AAA Memphis, a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate. "When I do hit them, they go in spurts. I just wanted to make solid contact, because a base hit would have also driven in a run."
Jensen has played for eight minor league and three major league teams. In 106 major league at-bats he has a .160 batting average and one home run.
The United States trailed, 3-2, after six innings, but Paquette hit a two-run home run in the seventh to put the Americans ahead, 4-3. The United States added another run in the eighth, but a two-run home run by Isaac Martinez evened the game.
The Americans made a big defensive play following the home run. With German Mesa on first base and two out, Luis Ulacia hit a grounder to reliever J.C. Romero. Romero threw the ball past Paquette and Mesa attempted to score. But right fielder Peter Bergeron made a strong throw home and Jensen tagged out Mesa.
"That was a situation where it was late in the game, and we probably would have sent our runner too," Jensen said. "They forced us to make the play, and we did."
The United States had 14 base runners in the first six innings but managed to score only twice. Cuba scored three runs in the bottom of the second inning on a series of mistakes by the U.S. team. Pitcher Brad Penny loaded the bases with one out by giving up a single to Juan Padilla, hitting Ariel Pestano and walking Martinez on four pitches.
With Mesa at the plate, Penny bounced a ball past Jensen, scoring Padilla and advancing the runners. Mesa then hit a routine ground ball to the right side. Second baseman Adam Kennedy not only failed to pick up the ball cleanly, which allowed Pestano to score, but compounded his mistake by throwing the ball wide of third base in an attempt to pick off Martinez, who scored.
"You always expect a tough game when you play the Cubans," Bell said. "We knew what we were up against. I thought we played great. The intensity was as good as any team I've ever been with."