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Cuba knocks Mexico out of Classic

Quest to reach 41st consecutive international final still alive

Frederich Cepeda went 3-for-4 with four RBIs on Monday and is hitting .750 in Classic play. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

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SAN DIEGO -- Never count Cuba out.

Facing elimination from the World Baseball Classic on Monday night at PETCO Park, the Cubans sent the Mexicans home instead with a 7-4 victory behind the seven-hit pitching of their two veteran right-handers, Norge Vera and Pedro Lazo.

"We said yesterday that we were a team ready to overcome defeat," Cuban manager Higinio Perez said. "And here we are."

Cuba will face another elimination game on Wednesday night against the loser of Tuesday night's Japan-Korea tilt. It was the second time in this tournament that Cuba defeated the Mexicans, whipping them, 16-4, at the end of the first round in Mexico City.

Cuba, which lost in the 2006 finals to Japan, was put on the brink of elimination by losing, 6-0, to the Japanese and right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka on Sunday.

The Cubans haven't missed the finals for 40 consecutive international tournaments, dating back to the baseball World Cup of 1951, and they don't aim to do it this time, either. The finals in this Classic are slated for Monday night at Dodger Stadium, following semifinal games on Saturday and Sunday.

"We showed up and played our best," said Cuban left fielder Frederich Cepeda, who had four RBIs in the game with a single and a bases-loaded clearing double. "I think we put on a great show."

Cuba reverted to small ball in the spacious PETCO environs, amassing 11 hits, only two of them for extra bases. But the two big knocks contributed to five of their runs. In contrast, the Cubans struck out 12 times, hit into two double plays and blasted four flies that were hauled down in the generous PETCO outfield during Sunday's game against Japan.

Cepeda's bases-loaded double with none out in the fifth inning, off the fence in right-center field, chased Mexican starter and loser Jorge Campillo, sending Mexico on to elimination. Mexico also didn't make it out of the second round three years ago during the inaugural Classic.

Right fielder Yoennis Cespedes put the game out of reach with a two-run, seventh-inning triple that split the outfielders in left-center.

"We looked at the [ballpark] and we knew it was a different scenario than the one we found in Mexico City," Velez said. "When you hit the ball it doesn't go as far here so we needed to hit more for line drives than home runs. That was contrary to everything we did in Mexico City [where Cuba swept three games, scoring 29 runs and hitting 10 homers]."

On Monday as well, Cuba got a strong starting performance from Vera, who stifled the Mexicans on two runs and three hits while whiffing five over the first 4 2/3 innings to earn the win. He also walked three and hit a batter. Lazo followed by tossing the final 4 1/3 innings, allowing two runs, four hits, walking none, whiffing six and giving up solo homers to Jorge Cantu and Christian Presichi. He was credited with the save.

It was reminiscent of the semifinal Classic game played at PETCO three years ago when Lazo combined with Yadel Marti to defeat the Dominican Republic, 3-1.

Lazo, now nearly 36, has pitched for the Cubans in the past four summer Olympics dating back to 1996, winning two gold medals and two silvers. His fastball crests now at about 87 mph.

Vera, 37, has been a member of the past three summer Cuban Olympics teams as well.

It was a team win by the ultimate international baseball squad that has won 38 of the 48 tournaments it's played in since 1939, although gold medals and titles have become scarce of late. The Cubans not only had to settle for second best in the first Classic, but they lost the last International Baseball Federation World Cup to Chinese Taipei in 2006 and the Olympic gold medal to Korea last summer at Beijing.

"The main objective here is the team," Cepeda said. "If we could move forward to the next stage -- the semifinals -- that would be the best I could take out of this Classic. My main goal is always as a team player."

Vera had to be pulled from the game when he fell off the mound with a cramp in his right calf pitching to Mexican second baseman Freddy Sandoval. It was the 14th pitch to Sandoval from Vera, who was lifted to his feet and helped off the field. It was also the second time in the at-bat that Cuban trainers came out to check Vera, who earlier was visibly limping.

Vera was sent to a hospital for precautionary reasons and was deemed healthy, Velez said after the game.

"He had a slight muscle [aggravation]," Velez said. "He went to the hospital, came back and will be ready to pitch again upon his turn. He has no injuries of any concern."

Vera was replaced by Lazo, who walked Sandoval on a full-count pitch and then ended the inning by whiffing Oscar Robles, Mexico's shortstop.

Cuba led early, 2-0, on RBI singles by Yulieski Gourriel and Cepeda. But Mexico came back to tie on Sandoval's third-inning single and Scott Hairston's based-loaded, fourth-inning grounder that came after Vera walked Adrian Gonzalez and Cantu.

The tie didn't last long, as Campillo fell apart in the fifth. The Cubans loaded the bases on a Leonys Martin single to center, a bunt single by Hector Olivera and a walk to Michel Enriquez.

Cepeda followed with the double that essentially kept Cuba alive in the tournament.

"We didn't do the small things," Presichi said about his Mexican team, which finished 2-3 in the tournament and was outscored by Cuba 23-8 in their two head-to-head matchups. "Cuba played better. Their hitting was much better than ours. Somebody had to win and they played a better ballgame. That's baseball."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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