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After 16 years, Cuba and U.S. will play baseball

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After 16 years, Cuba and U.S. will play baseball

From Comcast SportsNet
HAVANA (AP) -- A team of college stars representing the United States faced off with a veteran Cuban national squad in Havana, reviving a series between two baseball-crazy nations 16 years after it was called off at a nadir in relations. Players and fans stood respectfully in the city's storied Latin American Stadium on Thursday night as the Cuban and then the U.S. national anthems played on loudspeakers -- the latter a rarity in the Communist-run island nation. "This is awesome. I've never been out of the country before, so this is my first time," said USA outfielder Johnny Field, a 20-year-old sophomore who won a College World Series title less than two weeks ago with the University of Arizona. "We've heard all the hype about how great the stadium is, and Cuba is at baseball, and it's already shown since we got here. ... We're fired up to be here." The last time Cuba and the U.S. played a series like this outside of tournament play was 1996, which even among 53 years of bad blood stood out as a particularly bad year for U.S.-Cuban relations: That February, Cuba shot down two small planes piloted by an anti-Castro exile group that Havana accused of entering its airspace to drop leaflets. Later, President Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act, which dramatically hardened the U.S. trade embargo. USA Baseball President Mike Gaski said there was no single event that prompted the series to be suspended and decisions on funding, timing and scheduling have kept play from resuming. But he acknowledged that political concerns complicated matters, and said it took years of building relationships to bring about this weekend's games. "It wasn't for lack of trying on both people's parts. And there were probably political pressures that went on above our pay grades. ... I wasn't privy to those conversations," Gaski said. "There's always been an anxiety about defections, and maybe everybody's at a better place right now." The plan is for the Cubans to pay a reciprocal visit next summer. "The most important thing is to maintain this matchup, both in Cuba and in the United States. I would love to go play there," said Victor Mesa, the former star outfielder who's now managing Cuba's national team. There've been a number of Little League exchanges between the countries, and in 1999, the Baltimore Orioles became the first MLB team to play in Cuba since 1959. The U.S. squad of 22 players and five coaches arrived in Havana on Thursday with barely enough time to check into their hotel before it was time to head to the ballpark, where batting practice was interrupted by a downpour typical of the Caribbean summer. Groundskeepers managed to rake the field into playable condition, and the game started about 90 minutes late. In the sparsely filled stands, a few people waved American flags surrounded by horn-blowing Cuba fans. The U.S. won the opener 4-3 on Michael Conforto's grand slam and Jonathan Crawford's 6 1-3 innings of strong pitching. The series is a warm-up for both squads ahead of the upcoming Haarlem Baseball Week in the Netherlands. For the U.S. collegians, all but two of whom are freshmen or sophomores, it's also a chance to see how they perform against tougher competition. "In the past, the big stars from the United States played against us. Barry Bonds. Mark McGwire. Frank Thomas," Mesa said. "We are a measuring stick for the major leagues. We are an elite team with pitchers who could pitch at any level, so if one of these boys stands out against us, he has the talent to play in the majors." If baseball is America's national pastime, it's equally an obsession in Cuba. Stickball games are a daily sight in crowded Havana streets, and it seems everyone here knows the English words "ball," "strike," "inning" and "home run" -- pronounced "hon-ron." The U.S. and Cuba are perennial favorites at competitions such as the World Baseball Classic, and both sides express respect for what they consider a tough rival. "Whenever we've gone to a tournament, both USA Baseball and Cuba, I know we both look to see which bracket each other's in," said University of Tennessee coach Dave Serrano, manager of the USA squad. "For them to start this rivalry back up is like the Red Sox and the Yankees -- it's supposed to be part of baseball."

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With or without Justin Verlander, Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to stay in first place: ‘We have the pieces’

The Cubs already have a Cy Young Award winner, someone who was transforming into the hottest pitcher on the planet around this time in 2015, and then beat the Cleveland Indians twice on the road in last year’s World Series.

So the Cubs can keep discussing Justin Verlander and trying to figure out the price point where it makes sense, what caliber prospects they would have to give up and how much money the Detroit Tigers would have to kick in to cover a bill that could soar toward $90 million. 

But Jake Arrieta showed why the Cubs might finally start to run away from the division and become a very dangerous team in October, dominating the White Sox on Wednesday night at Guaranteed Rate Field during an 8-3 win that vaulted them into first place in the National League Central.          

“We expect to remain in first place,” Arrieta said. “We know it’s going to be a tough task, but that’s kind of what you deal with at the highest level of sports. You expect to have really good competition from teams that are either equal with you or close behind.

“We feel like we have the group to separate ourselves at this point in time and remain in first place for the remainder of the way.”

The Cubs probably don’t have the blue-chip prospects – and the appetite to raid their farm system again – to blow away the Oakland A’s and win a bidding war for Sonny Gray. The Cubs kick the tires on everything, but Yu Darvish would be a rental and the Texas Rangers are torn over what to do with their Japanese star. 

This is another reason why the Cubs are focusing on adding a veteran backup catcher and strengthening the bullpen before the July 31 trade deadline: Arrieta Watch is back, taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning in front of a sellout crowd of 38,517 before Omar Narvaez drilled a ground-rule double into the right-center field seats.  

The Cubs are 10-2 since trading for Jose Quintana during the All-Star break, erasing a 5.5-game deficit against the Milwaukee Brewers heading into this weekend’s showdown at Miller Park. At 53-47, the Cubs are a season-high six games over .500, and it all starts with pitching.  

“I think we’ve got the pieces to get it done,” Arrieta said. “If there’s a situation where we can get another guy and not lose any key players, it might work in our favor.

“Obviously, when we traded for Quintana, that’s a huge addition to our ballclub. This guy’s really good. He works his butt off. And just seeing how he carries himself in between starts is a really great sign. To have a guy like that who works extremely hard and cares about the team winning ballgames – you can’t replace that.

“That trade right there in itself is one that’s going to pay huge dividends for this ballclub, not only for this year, but for the next couple years. But we’re a great team right now, and I think we have the pieces to get it done.”  

Arrieta was on cruise control until Yoan Moncada launched his 98th and final pitch – an 0-2 curveball – 409 feet over the center-field wall with two outs in the seventh inning. Arrieta only allowed those two hits, giving up two runs and finishing with five strikeouts against two walks, continuing the correction super-agent Scott Boras predicted when the Chicago media and Cubs fans wondered about his flashes of diminished velocity and spikes in hard contact during a free-agency push.

Arrieta has methodically put together 10 wins and three straight quality starts after the All-Star break, chopping his ERA down from 5.44 in the middle of May to 4.03. Ricky Renteria’s White Sox are obviously tanking for the future and there are a lot of conditions attached to this statement: 

But if Arrieta pitches like this, Jon Lester continues to be one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation, Quintana excels in a pennant race and Kyle Hendricks regains his feel and rhythm after six-plus weeks on the disabled list, then the Cubs might have a better playoff rotation than the one that ended the 108-year drought.     

“We’re feelin’ it,” Arrieta said, thinking back to last summer, when Theo Epstein’s front office added 100-mph closer Aroldis Chapman to a team with close to a 99-percent chance of making the playoffs. “I remember last year we were in this clubhouse around this same time, and it’s no different.” 

Look at the competition: The Washington Nationals might be forced into adding a frontline starter now that Stephen Strasburg is headed to the 10-day disabled list with a nerve impingement in his right forearm. The Los Angeles Dodgers are hoping a strained lower back won’t stop Clayton Kershaw from making a few tune-up starts in September before becoming their Game 1 starter in October.

With or without Verlander, the Cubs are ramping up to defend their title.

“I’m going to continue to get stronger as the year progresses,” Arrieta said. “I feel like my best baseball, my best pitching, is still ahead of me. And I’m ready for it.”