Cuba is still alive in the World Baseball Classic, into the second round for the fourth consecutive tournament, all thanks to one swing of the bat.
Veteran outfielder Alfredo Despaigne's fifth-inning grand slam provided Cuba with all its runs in a 4-3 win that broke Australia's hearts again. The Australians have played in the World Baseball Classic all four times it has been held but have never made it out of the first round. This time they believed they really had a chance.
"We really thought we could beat Cuba," manager Jon Deeble said.
They had a chance and they were impressive, but they're going home. Cuba is staying around, advancing as the second-place team out of Pool B along with Japan, the pool's winner. The second round, which will also be played at Tokyo Dome, begins with Cuba playing Pool C winner Israel at 10 p.m. ET Saturday, followed by Japan-Netherlands at 5 a.m. ET Sunday.
Despaigne is playing in his third World Baseball Classic, and he has seen the Cuba team weakened as players left to sign contracts with the major leagues. He's now the cleanup hitter and the team's biggest star, counted on for moments like the one he delivered Friday.
"I'm so happy to contribute to the national team," he said.
Cuba trailed 1-0 through four innings, and the Cubans hadn't advanced a runner past first base against Tigers right-hander Warwick Saupold. But the Tigers had asked that Saupold throw no more than 50 pitches in a game, so Deeble had to take his starter out of the game after four scoreless innings.
He turned to Lachlan Wells, the just-turned-20 Twins prospect who was impressive in Australia's opening game against Japan. Wells quickly got two outs, but two singles and a walk loaded the bases for Despaigne. After Wells fell behind in the count 2-1, he threw an 89 mph fastball that Despaigne crushed to left field.
Cuba never scored again. Australia did, with single runs in the seventh and eighth before Miguel Lahera came in to get the final three outs. But all that gave them was another one-run loss to Cuba, to go with the 5-4 defeat that knocked the Aussies out of the tournament in 2009.
"We out-hit them, we outplayed them," Deeble said. "The only place we didn't win was the scoreboard. They [Cuba] have a knack of doing that."
They have a knack for getting through the first round, having done it in each edition of the World Baseball Classic so far. What Cuba hasn't done since the initial tournament in 2006 is make it to the semifinals.
"We're trying to go for Los Angeles," Cuba manager Carlos Marti said, referring to the final round that begins March 20 at Dodger Stadium. "That's our next goal."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Cuba's local hero: Despaigne is popular in Japan, where he played the last three seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines and just signed a new three-year contract with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. He has certainly looked at home at Tokyo Dome this week, with two home runs in three games. It's nothing new for him, though. Despaigne homered three times in six games in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. His grand slam Friday came off an 89 mph 2-1 fastball Wells left in the middle of the plate.
"I don't swing to be a home run king," Despaigne said. "I try to drive in runs."
All those Aussies on base: Australia will remember the Despaigne home run, but also all the missed chances to score more runs early in the game. The Aussies had two runners on base in the first, second and fourth innings, without scoring. They had the bases loaded in the third, before Yoennis Yera came out of the Cuba bullpen to strike out Logan Wade. Wade eventually gave Australia a lead with his two-out single off Yera in the fifth inning, but it could have been a lot more than 1-0 at that point. Australia ended up leaving 15 runners on base. More >>
Australia fights back: Just as it did against against Japan, Australia took a 1-0 lead but couldn't hold it. Unlike against Japan, the Aussies were able to challenge after they fell behind. They got a seventh-inning home run from Trent Oeltjen, who played 99 major league games with the Diamondbacks and Dodgers from 2009-11, and an eighth-inning run on a double by Luke Hughes and a single by Mitch Dening.
Saupold celebrates: Cuba's lone threat against Saupold came in the fourth inning, when a walk, a hit batter and a single loaded the bases with one out. Saupold got Carlos Benitez to bounce back to the mound, and when the 1-2-3 double play was complete, the Tigers pitcher punctuated it with a double fist-pump.
QUOTABLE "I can't wait for [Frederich] Cepeda and Despaigne to retire. They have worn me out for 16 years. They have destroyed us. This has gone on and on and on. They're great players, fantastic players." -- Deeble.
"This victory belongs to the people of Cuba. We advanced to the second round. That means a lot not just to me but to all the fans in Cuba." -- Roel Santos, Cuba center fielder.
WHAT'S NEXT Australia: The Aussies head home knowing they left a good impression, but also realizing it wasn't good enough. They lost 4-1 to Japan and routed China 11-0, but they couldn't get past Cuba.
Cuba: The Cubans get to stay around, and their reward is a second-round opening game against Israel at 10 p.m. ET Saturday.