Mystery Men

The World BaseballClassic served as a coming-out party for a largely unknown Cuban team, whichhad its ups and downs

While teams suchas the U.S. and Venezuela brought major league star power to the World BaseballClassic, Cuba brought an aura of mystery that in itself seemed advantageous. Afew hours before Sunday's second-round opener in San Juan, for instance,Venezuela manager Luis Sojo did not know which Cuban pitcher would startagainst his team. He figured that Pedro Lazo, 32, would start or close, butdidn't appear overly concerned. "They know how to pitch," Sojo said,"but they don't have any power pitchers."

It turned out thatCuba had several surprises in store for Sojo. Lazo entered the game in thefifth inning and went the rest of the way, escaping a no-outs, bases-loaded jamin the fifth with the pure power of 97-mph fastballs. The starting pitcher,Yadel Marti, had been the closer for Cuba's two first-round wins. Marti, 21,didn't even find out that he was starting until pregame warmups, then respondedwith four hitless innings before Lazo relieved him. Said an enlightened Sojo ofCuba after the loss, "They're really as good as we are."

The two pitcherscombined on a five-hitter against an all-major-league lineup as Cuba rolled toan emphatic 7-2 win. Only two days earlier Cuba had ended first-round play witha 12-2 loss to Puerto Rico that was halted after seven innings by the 10-runmercy rule. It marked only the second time, and the first since 1983, that Cubahad suffered such a knockout, as it is known in Latin America.

In every sense ofthe word Cuba is the surprise team of the WBC. When Venezuelan lefthander JohanSantana was asked last Saturday about Cuban second baseman Yulieski Gourriel,the hot-hitting star of the first round (4 for 7 with a home run and five RBIsagainst Panama and the Netherlands combined), the Twins ace replied, "I'mgoing to be honest with you. I do not know who Gourriel is."

The next dayGourriel struck out twice against Santana, though Cuba hung the loss on the2004 AL Cy Young Award winner while also roughing up reliever Giovanni Carrara.Cuba scored 28 runs in its first four games, winning three of them, beforeMonday's 7-3 loss to the Dominican Republic.

Cuba, the 2004Olympic champion, has long been a powerhouse in international competition,winning 19 straight before the loss to Puerto Rico. But many experts figuredthat the abundance of major leaguers in the Classic would be a stiff test,especially because Cuba did not bring several of its star players, fearing theywould be more likely to defect. The loss to Puerto Rico and a sloppy,extra-inning victory over a winless Panama team in the first round underscoredthose points.

The Cubans,though, enjoy an advantage over the WBC's other teams: Their players are inmidseason form. (The Cuban regular season was suspended for the Classic.) Whileother managers must first be concerned with protecting the health of playerswho will return to major league camps, Cuba's Higinio Velez can manage moreaggressively. For example, no manager would deploy a major league pitcher inthe variety of roles in which Velez has used Marti, the early pitching star ofthe tournament with 8 1/3 shutout innings.

"When PuertoRico beat Cuba, everybody said that was a knockout and Cuba was already gonefor the whole tournament," Lazo said after Sunday's win. "Cuba is notgone. Cuba is still here, and whoever wants to beat Cuba will really have tosweat it out."

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TWO PHOTOSCHUCK SOLOMON (2)UPLIFTING Pitchers Marti (elevated) and Lazo (inset) were the heroes in Cuba's first three wins. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (JETER)

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