Beisbol or baseball.
No matter how you slice it, the most anticipated matchup in the four-year history of the World Baseball Challenge at Citizen Field came wrapped in the intrigue of two countries with a long history of political grandstanding, trade embargoes and a cold war missile crisis that happened five decades ago.
None of that mattered Saturday when the Ciego de Avila Tigres of Cuba stepped on to the field to face the United States in front of 1,251 witnesses. They all came to watch two teams of great athletes square off in a rare diamond encounter and they weren't disappointed.
In a 3-2 thriller, Mario Vega's two-out single to left field in the top of the ninth inning scored Cuban leadoff hitter Ricardo Bourbon from second base for the deciding run. With Vega facing a 1-2 count, Bourbon took off running as soon as the ball left the hand of Team USA pitcher Scott Kuzminsky and Bourbon easily made it home.
"It was an outstanding game, the U.S. was an excellent rival and I prepared mentally for the occasion," said Vega, through an interpreter. "After failing twice before thanks to God I did the right thing.
"Collectively the team is playing well, we've been together for many years and we're doing things right. We dedicate this victory to the people of Ciego de Avila."
Team USA had a great chance to go ahead in the bottom of the eighth with runners at first and second with one out. Cory Urquhart's bunt to third base almost paid off but he was unable to beat the throw and Brian Corliss hit right back to the pitcher Lazaro Santana to end the inning.
"The first pitch was a ball and I knew he'd come back with a strike and if I lay a bunt down it could be a hit and then we've got the bases loaded with one out," said Urquhart. "The pitcher made a helluva play on the bunt, we were one hit away to go ahead, it just wasn't our night."
The U.S. team played by far its best game of the tournament so far, riding on the back of starting pitcher Austin Woodward. In his first game since finishing his sophomore year at Linn Benton Community College in Oregon, Woodward scattered 10 hits over seven full innings and gave up just two runs before handing the ball to fastballer Scott Kuzminsky.
"It was a little difficult at first, and I gave up a few hard hits in the first inning, but we were right there the whole time," said Woodward. "We had guys on in [scoring] position, but just couldn't get that one solid hit we kind of needed all night. The Cubans play D well and played their hearts out, they're big swingers. This game was the top of the top for me, the most fans I've ever had watch me. It was definitely big."
With the win, Cuba improved to 4-0 atop the five-team standings, while the U.S. dropped to 1-3.
Cuba opened the scoring in the third, an RBI single from Isac Martinez that brought in Raul Gonzalez from second base. The Tigres threatened in the fifth, started by Vega's one-out double into the left field corner. Gonzalez got him to third but Yoelvis Fiss hit into a 4-6-3 double play. The States tied it with one swing of the bat to the deepest part of the field, the first home run of the tournament for cleanup hitter Nate Mullins, an NAIA All-American at Bellevue University.
The Americans turned their third double play of the game in unorthodox fashion in the sixth inning. Humberto Morales hit a grounder that was fielded by second baseman Corliss, who got the ball to the shortstop Urquhart. His low throw to first was dropped by first baseman Jacob Herklotz, but Herklotz had time to pick it the ball and apply the tag when Morales overran the bag.
In the bottom of the sixth, Team USA catcher Mychal Harrington drove in Bobby LeCount with a single that eluded diving left fielder Bourbon. The next batter, Urquhart got on board safely with an infield hit and that was enough to convince Cuba to remove pitcher Dachel Duschesne. Lazaro Santana came in and got out of the inning with a sharp double play that retired Harrington, at home and Corliss at first base.
A sacrifice fly from Morales tied it two in the seventh.
Duquesne went 5 1/3 innings, allowing just six hits with four strikeouts.
The video feed of the game was picked up and broadcast live on national TV in Cuba with voiceovers from Cuban announcers. Team USA pitching coach Robin Robinson said it was a shame the game wasn't shown on a U.S TV network to show what two teams are capable of when national pride is on the line.
"I wish every one of these kids' parents, girlfriends and buddies back home could have watched this game and the way they competed," said Robinson. "Both teams battled and everybody in this yard got their money's worth. I'm glad the Cuban people get to watch their kids win a ball game tonight and we hope we get to see them again. I'm hoping it's us and them in the final."