Cuba won its first Caribbean Series championship since 1960 with a 3-2 victory over Mexico on Sunday, highlighted by Yulieski Gourriel's eighth-inning homer.
The victory marked a return for Cuba to its winning ways in the regional baseball series it used to dominate before Cuban stars were barred by its government in 1961 from playing professionally overseas. Cuba returned to the round-robin tournament last year but made a quick exit.
It looked like this year's squad would repeat the poor performance, losing its first two games against the Dominican Republic and Mexico. The team's remarkable turnaround began after the team announced that two of its players defected. The night after the players defected Cuba defeated Puerto Rico, 3-2, to qualify for the semifinals.
Cuba out-hit Mexico 11-4 on the way to this year's title, a day after dominating Venezuela 8-4 for a shot at the championship played this year in the U.S. Caribbean territory of Puerto Rico.
It was the first time that top Cuban players got a chance to compete on the U.S. island since Cuba and the United States moved to normalize relations. Dozens of major league scouts traveled to the Caribbean Series almost exclusively to assess Cuban talent.
Cuban starter Yosvani Torres was dominant for six innings on Sunday night, striking out five. Frederich Cepeda had a two-out RBI single, scoring Gourriel, in the first to give Cuba the early lead.
They went up 2-0 in the second inning when Luis Yander singled in a run.
Mexico pulled within a run in the fifth after Joey Meneses led off the inning with a double. He scored on a single by Walter Ibarra.
Cuba scored again in the eighth inning when Gourriel led off with a homer to left.
But Mexico, looking for its third consecutive title in the regional series, wasn't done yet.
In the bottom of the eighth, Eric Farris hit a two-out RBI single to right to make it 3-2 but Meneses flied out to right to end the inning.
"The Cuban team gave themselves more opportunities than we did offensively," Mexico Manager Benjamin Gil said.
Cuba's Cepeda, a 34-year-old outfielder who played in Japan last year, was selected tournament MVP. He went 6 for 8 during the team's last two games and drove in six runs.
It's the eighth time Cuba has taken the title at the Caribbean Series, which it won seven times between 1949 and 1960.
Last Wednesday, the Cuban state media announced that the 19-year-old pitcher Vladimir Gutiérrez and 29-year-old shortstop Dainer Moreira left the team's hotel room the previous night.
"We are very disappointed," the Cuban director of baseball, Heriberto Suárez, told USA Today at the time. "But this will serve as a platform for us to carry on stronger and more unified. We will continue giving our best and will return to Cuba together."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.
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