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."

After wild seventh, Carson Fulmer wants another big-time opportunity for White Sox

After wild seventh, Carson Fulmer wants another big-time opportunity for White Sox

The White Sox called up Carson Fulmer from Double-A Birmingham a week ago with the expectation he could add a strong, powerful arm to the back end of a bullpen that’s been taxed quite a bit this season. 

After he struggled in his first high-leverage appearance in the majors, though, the White Sox remain confident their 2015 first-round pick will be an important part of the team’s bullpen down the stretch this summer. 

Fulmer only threw 12 of 30 pitches for strikes and allowed three game-deciding runs in seventh inning of the White Sox 7-5 loss to the Detroit Tigers in front of 22,611 at U.S. Cellular Field Friday night. The leverage indexes of Fulmer’s first two appearances on the West Coast — which spanned 2 2/3 scoreless innings — were .01 and .05 (a leverage index of 1 is average), with those coming in a 8-1 loss and a 6-1 win. On Friday, Fulmer’s leverage index was 2.98. 

Fulmer said nerves weren’t behind his erratic outing, in which plenty of those 18 balls weren’t close to the strike zone. 

“I want to be in those situations,” the 22-year-old Fulmer said. “When you go out there and don’t do your job, it’s obviously frustrating. But you have to have a quick memory and throw it over your shoulder and prepare yourself for tomorrow.”

Fulmer’s electric mid-90’s fastball and wipeout curveball were rendered ineffective by his inability to command them in his two-thirds of an inning. He walked Justin Upton, gave up a single to Tyler Collins and walked Jarrod Saltalamacchia to load the bases with nobody out, and after a pair of groundouts brought a run in, he walked Cameron Maybin to re-load the bases.

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After that walk, Fulmer was pulled in favor of Nate Jones, who surrendered a go-ahead, ultimately game-winning two-run single to Tigers All-Star first baseman Miguel Cabrera. 

At some point, the White Sox were going to have to test Fulmer. With starter Jacob Turner only lasting 3 1/3 innings, and Fulmer looking comfortable in his first two appearances in the majors, manager Robin Ventura calculated that the seventh inning Friday was a prime opportunity. 

“He’s going to have to have it sooner or later,” Ventura said. “From the way the first (two) went, we felt comfortable he was going to come in there and be able to do that. But tonight, that doesn’t happen. But you have the confidence he can come back from this and be very effective in that spot.”

Morneau, who’s provided offense for bullpens over 14 major league seasons, agreed with his manager’s confidence in Fulmer. 

“We see a lot of good things in him,” Morneau said. “It’s obviously not up to me, but hopefully we get him back out there quick and let him settle back down and get comfortable, because he can really help this team.” 

White Sox relievers entered Friday with the fifth-highest leverage index in baseball, a product of the high volume of one-, two- and three-run games this team has found itself in this season. All those stressful innings — as well as Jake Petricka’s season-ending injury and Zach Putnam’s elbow issue from which he isn’t likely to return anytime soon — have put a considerable strain on Jones, Dan Jennings, Matt Albers, Zach Duke and David Robertson.

Fulmer, by virtue of being in the White Sox bullpen, will get another opportunity at a high-leverage inning. And while his first foray into a pressure-packed relief appearance didn’t go well, he hopes to quickly get a chance to put Friday in the rearview mirror. 

“I can’t ever use the excuse of it being my first big-time experience, especially for me being put in that situation,” Fulmer said. “Hopefully I get the opportunity to do it again. I’ll continue to stay prepared, just like I was tonight, and hopefully the odds turn in my favor. That’s all I can control.” 

Sky see winning streak snapped in loss to Connecticut Sun

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Associated Press

Sky see winning streak snapped in loss to Connecticut Sun

ROSEMONT, ILL. 

Jonquel Jones had her first-career double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds — both career highs — and Alex Bentley scored 21 points to help the Connecticut Sun beat the Chicago Sky 94-89 on Friday night.

Alyssa Thomas and Jasmine Thomas added 16 points apiece and Chiney Ogwumike had 10 for the Sun (8-16).

Jones scored five consecutive points to cap a 13-4 run that gave Connecticut a 78-74 lead with 4 minutes left and the Sun led the rest of the way. Connecticut hit all eight of its free-throw attempts in the final 42 seconds to seal it.

Elena Delle Donne led Chicago (11-13) with 20 points. Cappie Pondexter added 16 points, and Tamera Young had 14.

The Sun, ranked 11th in the AP WNBA power poll, made 26 of 32 free-throw attempts — both season highs and committed a season-low seven turnovers.

The fifth-ranked Sky shot 52.3 percent (34 of 65) from the field.

Game changer: Dexter Fowler’s return fuels Cubs in Milwaukee

Game changer: Dexter Fowler’s return fuels Cubs in Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE – Cubs fans, Dexter Fowler feels your pain: “It sucks being on the couch and watching your team struggle.”

It only took five pitches on Friday night at Miller Park before Fowler answered the questions about how much this lineup missed his presence and how long it would take him to get back into a rhythm.

“You go, we go” is what manager Joe Maddon tells Fowler, and a sellout crowd of 42,243 roared when the All-Star leadoff guy hammered a 94-mph Jimmy Nelson fastball off the black batter’s eye in center field, setting the first-inning tone in a 5-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

“I was just happy to be back around the boys,” Fowler said after going 3-for-4 with a walk, three RBI and two runs scored in his return. “It’s like being back home.”

Fowler’s strained right hamstring alone doesn’t begin to explain all this, because he had been hitting .207 in June, the rotation cooled off, the bullpen became unreliable and a 24-games-in-24-days stretch wore this team out before the All-Star break. But the Cubs were 27 games over .500 and had a 12.5-game lead in the division on June 19, the night Fowler went on the disabled list with what sounded like a minor injury.

If panic didn’t completely set in around a first-place team, underlying issues kept bubbling to the surface, the Cubs losing 15 of their last 21 games before that summer vacation.

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But the second-half Cubs (58-37) now look energized, beating the American League’s best first-half team (Texas Rangers) and the defending National League champs (New York Mets) at Wrigley Field before rolling up Interstate 94 for a virtual home game.

Now here comes Fowler, who jumpstarted the offense again with the bases loaded in the second inning, lining a two-run double down the left-field line and saying postgame that he felt no lingering issues with the hamstring.

“He’s an asset at the top of the lineup,” winning pitcher Jason Hammel said. “Tough at-bat. And he can get you. It was nice to see him run around out there again.”

Yes, Hammel (9-5, 3.35 ERA) ate a handful of potato chips to help prevent cramping in the 86-degree heat, lasting five innings before five relievers combined to hold the Brewers (40-54) scoreless the rest of the night. For all the buzz about Theo Epstein’s front office upgrading the bullpen by the Aug. 1 trade deadline, Maddon may already have a shiny new toy in Carl Edwards Jr.

The skinny right-hander entered the game in the sixth inning, with a runner on second, and cut through the heart of Milwaukee’s order, forcing Ryan Braun to ground out and striking out Jonathan Lucroy and Chris Carter on six pitches combined.    

Just like that, the Cubs are getting answers from within, after all the outside noise screamed: Do something! The fans chanted “Let’s go, Cubbies!” before closer Hector Rondon got the final out and his 17th save. This is again looking like the team Fowler envisioned when he turned down the Baltimore Orioles for a one-year, $13 million guarantee, shocking the industry by showing up in Arizona in late February.     

“It’s really apparent how important he is to us,” Maddon said. “It just looked right.”