Alfredo Despaigne knew it as soon as he hit it, all the Cubans did. That ball was gone, headed for the furthest reaches of Tokyo Dome. Despaigne watched the ball fly while taking a few steps up the first base line with his index finger pointing toward the Cuban bench. When he turned to see his teammates celebrating, Despaigne flipped his bat and began his jog around the bases.
The Cubans are not done yet, they will continue on at this World Baseball Classic.
Despaigne turned a one-run deficit into a three-run lead in the fifth inning with a grand slam and Cuba held on to avoid an early exit with a 4-3 win over Australia that sent it into the second round of the 2017 WBC.
“That was a fantastic and hard game,” said Despaigne, who will play in NPB for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks this season. “We are very happy that we could win. I would like to show my respect for Team Australia as well, they played very hard.”
Cuba joins Pool B winner Japan, Pool A winner Israel and Pool A runner-up Netherlands in the second round, which begins Sunday at Tokyo Dome. Cuba will face Israel in its second-round opener.
“Of course our aim is always to win with good quality,” Cuba manager Carlos Marti said. “In the second round, not only Japan but all the countries are very solid and high-level countries.”
Vladimir Garcia earned the win in relief for the Cubans despite allowing two runs on five hits in three innings. Miguel Lahera earned the save.
The contest was an elimination game, with the winner moving on and the loser heading home. Australia had been hoping to advance to the second round of the WBC for the first time.
“I’m gutted,” Australia manager John Deeble said. “I think that we outplayed them in every facet of the game. We had one mistake, and against a team like Cuba, you can’t afford to. We had 21 quality at-bats. We outhit them (13-10), I think we outplayed them and the only place we didn’t win was the scoreboard.
“They’ve got a knack for doing that. That’s why they’re good. Despaigne, (Frederich) Cepeda, on the big stage, they always come through.”
Logan Wade got Australia off to a 1-0 lead with a single in the top of the fifth. The team’s second run came on a solo homer by Trent Oeltjen in the seventh, and Mitch Dening drove in the third with a single in the eighth.
Australian Allan de San Miguel continued his strong play at the plate, going 3-for-4 with a walk. He finished the WBC 5-for-9 with a home run and one RBI in three games.
Reliever Lachlan Wells struck out the first two batters he faced in the bottom of the fifth before loading the bases. He gave up Despaigne’s grand slam and took the loss after allowing four runs on three hits.
Australia had its chances earlier in the game.
The Aussies loaded the bases with two away in the third, but came away empty-handed after Wade went down swinging. They put runners on first and second with one out in the fourth, but again couldn’t score as James Beresford flew out to center and Luke Hughes struck out.
Cuba missed a big chance of its own with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the fourth. The chance slipped away when Carlos Benitez grounded a ball back to the pitcher, Warwick Saupold, who started an inning-ending 1-2-3 double play.
Australia finally broke through in the fifth. Dening drew a walk to begin the frame. When Timothy Kennelly couldn’t move him over, striking out, Dening stole second with Wade at the plate. Wade did his part with a single to left as Dening raced home to score the game’s first run.
Cuba’s Roel Santos connected on a one-out single in the second and Alexander Ayala followed with a single. Cepeda drew a walk on a close pitch to load the bases, and Despaigne cleared them with a home run that hit a pole before it could reach the wall behind the stands in left field.
Australia didn’t go down quietly, closing the gap to one run on Oeltjen’s home run in the seventh and Dening’s RBI single in the ninth.
Lahera retired the side in order in the ninth to end the game.
That Despaigne and Cepeda were involved in the final result in some way was no surprise to Deeble.
“I cannot wait for Cepeda and Despaigne to retire,” Deeble joked. “Because they have worn me out for 16 years. I won’t be sad when they finish playing. These guys are two fantastic players and they have destroyed us for 16 years.
“This has gone on and on and on and on,” he said, listing a few of the pair’s exploits against the Aussies. “I’ll be so happy when they finish their careers and we don’t have to see them again. They’re great players, fantastic players.”