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Despaigne’s heroics carry Cuba to championship

by Jason Coskrey

On a day the mighty Cubans finally looked beatable, Alfredo Despaigne looked invincible.

Despaigne hit a game-tying solo homer in the eighth inning and added a walk-off three-run blast in the 10th to lead Cuba past the United States 4-3 in the final of the 5th World University Baseball Championship on Saturday at Jingu Stadium.

“I was calm during the at-bat and hit it for the team,” Despaigne said. “It was the big hit that the team needed.

“I felt like I had to hit it for the Cuban citizens back home.”

The victory gives Cuba its second title in the event and first since the inaugural tournament in 2002. Despaigne was named the tournament MVP after his heroics.

“I am extremely happy and satisfied with the fact that we reached the goal we set,” Cuba manager Eduardo Martin said. “It was such a difficult game. It made us nervous. But it was the type of game the championship round deserved.”

For the United States, it was another heartbreaking result at Jingu Stadium after falling in extra innings to Japan in the deciding game of the USA vs. Japan Collegiate Championships last year.

Despaigne finished 2-for-5 and drove in all four of Cuba’s runs. His heroics would not have been possible without a Herculean effort from starting pitcher Miguel Gonzalez.

The Cuban hurler pitched into the 10th, allowing three runs — one earned — on eight hits and striking out 14 in 9 2/3 innings.

“He was pitching pretty well and said he wanted to be on the mound,” Martin said. “So we let him be on the mound.”

Reliever Vladimir Garcia earned the win for Cuba. Nick Ramirez took the loss.

The Cubans rode into the final with an air of invincibility, having dispatched their previous five opponents by a combined score of 70-8.

That image was shattered by a gutsy performance from U.S starter Gerrit Cole, who was able to hold Cuba’s powerful lineup in check with a couple of big assists from his defense.

Cole pitched himself into some jams — including loading the bases with one away in the third — but left a scoreless game after scattering 10 hits and striking out two over seven shutout innings.

He found himself in line for the win in the top of the eighth after a solo home run by Andrew Maggi put the U.S. ahead 1-0.

With Cole out of the game, Despaigne led off the bottom of the eighth against reliever Noe Ramirez with his game-tying solo blast.

The Cubans looked to have the game wrapped up in the ninth after putting runners on first and second with no outs.

After the Cuban runners advanced on a wild pitch, the U.S. intentionally walked the next batter to load the bases ensuring it could get a force play at home.

With the Cuban team standing in front of its dugout clutching its nation’s flag in anticipation of a celebration, first baseman Nick Ramirez switched gloves and moved from first base to the pitcher’s mound.

Nick Ramirez got Yoilan Cerce to ground into a 1-2-3 double play for a pair of quick outs, then retired Hector Olivera — with a big assist from center fielder Jackie Bradley — to end the inning.

The move is nothing new for Nick Ramirez, who is the first baseman and closer for Cal State Fullerton.

Moving into the 10th put the tournament’s tiebreaker rules in effect, allowing each team to begin the inning with runners on first and second.

The Americans took advantage, scoring a pair of runs to take a 3-1 lead.

Cuba started its half of the 10th with a single by Olivera — leading off due to the tiebreaker rules — which left runners at first and third.

Despaigne then cleared the bases with a shot to left, setting off a wild celebration.

In the day’s earlier game, Japan bounced back from a loss in the semifinals with a dominating 9-0 victory against South Korea in the bronze-medal game.

“Our players were down after the loss to the United States (in the semifinals on Friday),” Japan manager Tamotsu Enomoto said. “But we entered the game with a mind-set of not ending the tournament in that way.”

Starter Takahiro Fujioka mowed down the South Korean lineup, striking out 10 while allowing just a single hit over five shutout innings.

“Today’s game was one we couldn’t afford to lose,” Fujioka said. “My fastball was working really well and (catcher Shota) Koike guided me well. I didn’t walk any batters, so I can give myself an 80 (out of 100) today.”

Hayata Ito led the charge at the plate, getting Japan on the board with a two-run homer — his third of the tournament — in the first, while Yuichi Hasegawa capped a six-run fourth with a three-run double.

Japan ends the tournament 4-2, its only losses a 12-7 setback to Cuba in the first round and a 4-2 loss to the U.S. in the semifinals.