DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Matt Chapman’s teammates streamed out of the dugout to celebrate his hit as though the Cal State-Fullerton star had won the College World Series.
Simply an exhibition?
Not when it’s against Cuba.
Chapman had an RBI single in the bottom of the 11th inning to give Team USA a 2-1 victory over Cuba on Thursday night in an international exhibition.
The matchup was the opener of a five-game series between Cuba and a team of American college stars — and the first between the countries on American soil since 1996.
Cuba’s Jose Fernandez tied the game at 1-1 with an RBI single with two outs in the ninth. But Chapman responded by ripping a line drive to right field with two outs in the 11th.
“It’s fun to play teams and meet new people. But at the end of the day, we really want to win,” Chapman said.
The mood was hardly so pleasant in the Cuban locker room.
Cuba lost pitcher Misael Siverio to defection on Tuesday, and his defection drew much of the attention away from Cuba’s visit to the U.S.
Cuban manager Victor Mesa acknowledged Siverio’s defection by criticizing him after the game, saying he’s no better than a Triple-A talent at best.
“You may see the gentleman that defected working as a laborer. He came with us because he’s a left-handed thrower, but he’s not that great of a pitcher,” Mesa said through an interpreter.”
The U.S. and Cuba faced each other often in international friendlies from the late 70s until the mid-90s.
The matchup between Cuba’s national team and American college players didn’t resume until last year in Havana, with the Cubans taking three of the five games.
Cuba will play the U.S. in Omaha, Neb., on Friday and Saturday before games in Cary and Durham, N.C., next week.
“It’s just great for baseball across the world,” Team USA coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “It’s exciting. It’s fun to play good teams.”
Cuba’s offense struggled until the ninth inning.
But its defensive prowess was on display from the moment it took the field.
Trea Turner led off for the U.S. by hitting a line drive that bounced off pitcher Vladimir Garcia’s glove. But Cuban shortstop Barbaro Arruebarruena barehanded the ball, and his throw to first beat Turner by a step.
Cuban catcher Lazaro Herrera committed two throwing errors. But Fernandez, a second baseman, and third baseman Yulieski Gourriel handled difficult plays with ease.
Center fielder Dairon Varona also showed off his powerful arm more than once.
N.C. State starter Carlos Rodon, who could be a first-round pick in next year’s MLB draft, allowed just one hit while striking out four in 3 1/3 innings, and TCU’s Preston Morrison struck out four in 3 2/3 scoreless innings.
Chapman also scored the first run for the U.S. on a sacrifice fly from Turner.
The game went to an international tiebreaker for extra innings. Each team started their innings with runners on first and second base.
The U.S. held Cuba scoreless in the 10th as catcher Grayson Greiner threw out Ariel Sanchez at second following a wild pitch.
The makeup of the Cuban roster was largely unknown to the U.S. The majority of Cuba’s team didn’t play in the recent World Baseball Classic.
Still, Team USA picked up just enough to execute a defensive shift in the seventh inning on right-handed cleanup hitter Yasmani Tomas.
He pulled a grounder just left of second base, and second baseman Alex Bregman was in perfect position for the putout.
“It’s a very well-equipped team. Spectacular talent,” Mesa said of the U.S.
The game drew nearly 5,000 fans, an impressive crowd for a Thursday night with temperatures in the 90s at first pitch.
Iowa Cubs officials were also told by USA Baseball to prepare for as many as 100 scouts.
“It’s cool because we might be the underdogs because we’re younger,” Chapman said. “I think it’s going to be pretty exciting the rest of the series.”
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