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."

Bears win over 49ers nets DE Akiem Hicks NFL defensive honor

Bears win over 49ers nets DE Akiem Hicks NFL defensive honor

It may have been just a distant similarity to players on an MLB cellar-dweller earning a Cy Young or MVP award (which happens in Chicago, a lot – Andre Dawson, Ernie Banks twice), but to the Bears it matters. Defensive end Akiem Hicks was named NFC defensive player of the week after his dominating performance in the Bears win last Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers, and he is not alone among Bears getting recognition after one of their few victories.

Never mind that the victory moved the Bears to 3-9 and came over a team losing its 11th straight game. What Hicks accomplished – two sacks, 10 tackles, a quarterback hit, a forced fumble – was being a force in the Bears’ domination of the 49ers and has been part of the emotional core of a team that has lost but not folded.

“It’s easy to say, ‘We’re not getting the results we want,’ but guys have invested,” Hicks said. “I’ve told guys, ‘just think about the hours you’ve invested, to get your body and mind ready for a 16-game season. Why would you put all that work in and then, when you don’t get the results you want, just quit?’"

[SHOP: Get your Bears gear right here]

Jordan Howard is one of the nominees for the FedEx Air & Ground NFL player of the week. Howard, who posted his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the year, could be a double-winner: He also is among the nominees for Pepsi NFL rookie of the week, as is teammate Leonard Floyd (two sacks, safety, four tackles).

Voting on the latter two awards is still open.

Hicks’ play vs. San Francisco boosted him to a career-best six sacks, and he credited Bears coaches afterwards with giving him opportunities to rush the passer, not simply be utilized as a run-stopper. He has been everything and perhaps a little more than the Bears anticipated when they signed him this offseason to a two-year contract worth $10 million, with $5 million guaranteed.

“I think he's done well,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “It's a credit to him, a credit to Jay [Rodgers, defensive line coach]. Akiem has kept improving throughout the season, and he's been one of the guys that have been there each and every week, playing a lot of plays for us, and he's been a steady bell cow for us in there.”

Scouting reports on Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito and newly acquired White Sox prospects

Scouting reports on Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito and newly acquired White Sox prospects

The White Sox rebuild is in full effect.

Rick Hahn & Co. have traded Chris Sale and Adam Eaton in exchange for eight prospects in a span of two days.

Take a look at scouting reports for all eight players.

Yoan Moncada, 21, 2B — No. 1 prospect on MLB.com

(Acquired from Red Sox for Sale)

"Moncada brings a tantalizing blend of physicality, power, speed and athleticism as a switch-hitter with defensive versatility, making him one of the most dynamic prospects in the game. He projects as a plus offensive force, a plus defender at either second base or third base, and a plus runner capable of wreaking havoc on the basepaths. The one big area of his game that needs improvement is his plate discipline, which was exposed after he struck out 12 times in 20 plate appearances with the Red Sox. Despite that poor showing, he demonstrated patience throughout the minors and has shown a propensity for making quick adjustments before. He could start 2017 in Triple-A, but very well could break camp with the White Sox and solidify himself as a starter from day one in his new organization." — (Baseball America)

Lucas Giolito, 21, RHP — No. 3 prospect on MLB.com

(Acquired from Nationals for Eaton)

"The 2012 first-round pick and four-time BA Top 100 prospect made his long-awaited major league debut in 2016 but struggled, getting rocked for 26 hits and 16 earned runs in 21.1 innings, with more walks (12) than strikeouts (11). Giolito in the past sat in the upper 90s with his fastball and frequently reached triple-digits, but saw his stuff back up and sit in the 92-94 mph range and top out at 96 in 2016 with poor command. That fastball gave Giolito his biggest problems in 2016, with MLB opponents batting .349 against it with a .730 slugging percentage, per Statcast. While his fastball stalled, he still limited big league hitters to sub-.200 averages on his curveball (.167) and changeup (.143). The Tommy John survivor has seen his prospect stock fall in light of his recent struggles, but if he can rediscover his fastball velocity still projects as one of the most promising young righthanders in baseball. Scouts reported issues with his mechanics and pitchability this year, but both are correctable issues that should lead to improved command once they are solved." —​ (Baseball America)

Michael Kopech, 20, RHP — No. 30 prospect on MLB.com

(Acquired from Red Sox for Sale)

"Kopech is the latest in a long line of big, hard-throwing Texas righthanders, with a 98 mph fastball that routinely gets up to triple-digits and recently hit 102 in the Arizona Fall League. The 33rd overall pick in 2014 is more than just a thrower though, with an 87 mph power slider and 91 mph changeup that both made significant progress throughout the 2016 season and give him two quality offerings to confound batters even further. Taken on the surface, his raw stuff draws comparisons to Noah Syndergaard. Kopech does come with red flags, however. In 2015 he was suspended 50 games for amphetamine use and in spring training 2016 he broke his hand in an altercation with a teammate. If he can harness his talent without any more incidents, Kopech profiles as a possible No. 1 starter." —​ (Baseball America)

Reynaldo Lopez, 22, RHP — No. 38 prospect on MLB.com

(Acquired from Nationals for Eaton)

"Lopez entered 2016 as the Nationals’ second-best pitching prospect behind Giolito, but by the end of the year had surpassed him in the eyes of most evaluators. Lopez is just 6-foot, 185-pounds but possesses an electric 95-97 mph fastball that touched 100 in his major league debut in 2016, and backs it up with a low 80s curveball that grades plus, as well as an upper-80s changeup. Lopez’s biggest bugaboo is his command, which wavers at times and resulted in 4.5 walks per nine innings once he got to the majors. Still, the quality of his stuff allowed him to survive in both a relief and starting role once he got to Washington, and he gives the White Sox a young, major-league ready, power righthander to pair with lefties Jose Quintana—assuming he’s not traded—and Carlos Rodon." —​ (Baseball America)

Dane Dunning, 21, RHP

(Acquired from Nationals for Eaton)

"The Nationals drafted Dunning 29th overall this past June and signed him for $2 million after he was a core piece of Florida’s dominant pitching staff. Dunning bounced between starting and relieving in college but has the stuff to be a starter, with a low-90s fastball that gets up to 95 mph and a changeup and slider that both have a chance to be average. He demonstrated impeccable control at Florida and continued it with a 32-to-7 strikeout to walk mark over 33.2 innings in his pro debut. With strikeout stuff, plus control and a prime pedigree, Dunning has a chance to move quickly up the White Sox system and help sooner than later in Chicago." —​ (Baseball America)

Luis Alexander Basabe, 20, OF 

(Acquired from Red Sox for Sale)

"Basabe signed with the Red Sox along with his twin brother Luis Alejandro out of Venezuela when they were 16. They climbed the system together until this year, when Luis Alejandro was traded to the Diamondbacks midseason for Brad Ziegler. Now, Luis Alexander is on the move too after reaching high Class A as a 19-year old and solidifying himself as one of Boston’s top 10 prospects. He is a switch-hitter with the speed and athleticism to stick in center field, and his 25 stolen bases in 30 attempts last season are a testament to how his speed plays on the basepaths. Basabe is still very raw and refining his game, particularly his plate discipline and strike-zone judgement, but has shown the skill set to become a top of the order center fielder down the road." —​ (Baseball America)

Victor Diaz, 22, RHP

(Acquired from Red Sox for Sale)

"Diaz has a power fastball in the 96-100 mph range, an 87-90 mph slider that is his main secondary pitch, a riding two-seamer and a splitter in its nascent stages. He is still learning how to harness his arsenal after issuing 41 walks in his first 90 career innings. If he does that, he becomes a bona fide closer prospect down the road." —​ (Baseball America)