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In loss, South Africa draws positives

Pitching, bats overwhelmed by Cuba in first Classic matchup

"Cuba is a great team," starter Barry Armitage said of South Africa's competition on Sunday. (Claudio Cruz/AP)

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MEXICO CITY -- South Africa was dealt the difficult hand of facing Cuba in its opening-round game of the 2009 World Baseball Classic. And yet, there was no sign of the team folding early on Sunday afternoon as it was dealt an 8-1 loss by Cuba in the first game of Pool B, held in Mexico City.

Though South Africa was held without a baserunner until the fourth inning and without a hit until the top of the fifth, it refused to surrender at the plate.

That persistence finally paid off in the top of the ninth inning, when South Africa's Jonathan Phillips knocked a single into shallow center to bring Martin Gordon home from second base. Martin had advanced from first on a wild pitch.

Phillips finished his day at the plate 1-for-3 and drew a walk in the top of the fourth inning to end Cuba starter Norge Luis Vera's bid for a perfect game. The third baseman was also the starting point for a one of South Africa's three double plays, which was a source of pride for the young squad, despite its issues on offense.

"Our defense was superb," South Africa manager Rick Magnante said. "I mean, we played very solid, solid defense. It was very difficult for our hitters today, when you're getting 0-2 and 1-2 in the count. We could never get back into the count."

Vera pitched six shutout innings, allowing two hits and striking out six before giving way to three other Cuban pitchers.

South Africa's starter Barry Armitage hung tough for three innings, giving up five runs on eight hits.

"Cuba is a great team," Armitage said. "They took advantage of the mistakes I made, and I'm sure the rest of the pitchers."

Donovan Hendricks took over for Armitage in the bottom of the fourth inning, but struggled to fare any better. Hendricks allowed three runs on four hits through 2 1/3 innings of work.

In spite of the loss, South Africa seemed to develop a following among the 11,280 fans gathered at Foro Sol Stadium. As the game wore on, various chants of "Si, se puede" -- "Yes, we can" -- rang out from the crowd during South Africa's at-bats.

"To actually see that they came out to support us, and they watched the game, it was amazing," Phillips said of the fans. "That's not what we're used to."

Christopher Ramirez is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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