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World Baseball Classic: Team USA, Cuba Collide in Game With 60-Plus Years Of Tension

 Leif Skodnick - World Baseball Network  |    Mar 19th, 2023 12:28pm EDT

Trea Turner of The United States hits a grand slam during the eighth inning of a 2023 World Baseball Classic Quarterfinal game against The United States at loanDepot park on March 18, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

By Leif Skodnick
World Baseball Network

MIAMI- It’s a matchup 17 years in the making piled on top of 60-plus years of tension.

And where else could be more appropriate for Cuba and the United States to square off for the first time at the World Baseball Classic than Miami, a city with a population of Cuban-Americans numbering around 850,000?

And so it will be tomorrow, when Adam Wainwright and Roenis Elias take the mound for Team USA and Cuba, respectively.

Cuba advanced to the semifinals with a 4-3 win against Australia at the Tokyo Dome on March 15, after going 2-2 in Pool A in Taichung City, Taiwan and winning the pool via a five-way tiebreaker. The Netherlands beat Cuba in the pool play opener 4-2 March 7, and Italy beat Cuba 6-3 in 10 innings on March 9, putting Cuba on the brink of elimination. A 13-4 drubbing of Panama on March 10 and a 7-1 win over Chinese Taipei on March 11 gave Cuba a good enough run differential to win the pool and advance to the quarterfinal.

Elias, who plays for the Chicago Cubs in Major League Baseball has made two appearances in the WBC, throwing seven innings, allowing four hits, two runs, one walk, and striking out three, while posting a WHIP of 0.71.

Wainwright, 41, is the veteran ace of Team USA, but has only made one appearance in the tournament so far, throwing four innings and allowing five hits and one run against Great Britain in Team USA’s opener of Pool C play at Chase Field in Phoenix.

Team USA is coming off their best offensive performance of the event, a 9-7 quarterfinal win over Venezuela Saturday night, which featured a go-ahead, game-winning grand slam by Philadelphia Phillies’ infielder Trea Turner.

“I think, individually, I think this is probably the biggest hit that I’ve had. And individually probably right up there with any hit I’ve ever had,” Turner said of the grand slam. “And we’re not done yet. This is a tough game. We’re going to have tough games going forward. But like I said, I’m glad we won and we can kind of keep striving for that goal.”

Asked if he thought the fans in Miami, a city where the vast majority of the Cuban-American population stands in staunch opposition to the Communist regime in Cuba, would be a distraction, Alfredo Despaigne was dismissive of the possibility.

“You have fans supporting you and fans against you. That’s natural in baseball,” Despaigne said. “It doesn’t affect us. I played for nine years in Japan and we had fans supporting our team and others supporting other teams. So everyone is free to feel and to think whatever they want. It won’t affect us.”

Despaigne, the all-time home runs leader at the WBC with seven, could be making his last appearance at the event. The veteran has played 12 seasons in the Cuban Serie Nacional and nine seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball with the Chiba Lotte Marines and Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. 

This, most likely, will be the last opportunity for American fans to see Despaigne play in person.

For Team USA, they haven’t seen a lot of tape of Cuba, which built its roster largely from players who play in international leagues and in Cuba, with, for the first time, a few players from Major League Baseball.

“To be honest with you I haven’t really watched a whole lot of Cuba play,” said Team USA pitcher Ryan Pressly. “They were in a completely different time zone, so I guess you would only see the highlights over here. But I’m sure they’re ready to get after us and we’re ready to get after them. So it will be a fun, exciting game for sure.”

A fun, exciting game, with 62 years of political rivalry hanging in the humid Miami air.

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Leif Skodnick - World Baseball Network