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Grand swing: Despaigne's slam gives Cuba a lift

Special to MLB.com

TOKYO -- Alfredo Despaigne watched teammate after teammate leave Cuba for MLB riches. He played with Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, with Jose Abreu, Yasmany Tomas and Yulieski Gurriel in WBC 2013.

He's the star who stayed with the program, the one still making Cuban baseball memories like the one he made Friday. This was a big one.

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TOKYO -- Alfredo Despaigne watched teammate after teammate leave Cuba for MLB riches. He played with Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, with Jose Abreu, Yasmany Tomas and Yulieski Gurriel in WBC 2013.

He's the star who stayed with the program, the one still making Cuban baseball memories like the one he made Friday. This was a big one.

View Full Game Coverage

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

Facing what amounted to a one-game playoff with Australia for the right to advance to the second round, Cuba found itself trailing by a run. Despaigne's fifth-inning grand slam changed all that, and it stood as the deciding margin in a 4-3 Cuba win at Tokyo Dome.

It was a big-time hit for a big-time player, even if he's someone most American baseball fans are at most vaguely familiar with. They know all those other guys, of course, the ones who left. So does Despaigne, and he's not critical of their choice.

"Being on the national team of Cuba, a lot of my friends went to the United States," he said. "But no matter where they go, where they play, they are still part of the Cuban team."

No one is a bigger part of that team than Despaigne, the 30-year-old left fielder, cleanup hitter and team leader.

All the departures mean the team leans on him more than ever, a duty he accepts.

"I have huge responsibility to be a leader of this national team," he said.

Cuba is staying around, advancing as the second-place team out of Pool B along with Japan, the pool's winner. The second round, which will also be played at Tokyo Dome, begins with Cuba playing Pool C winner Israel at 10 p.m. ET Saturday, followed by Japan-Netherlands at 5 a.m. ET Sunday.

The responsibility was as big as ever Friday. Cuba had never been eliminated in the first round of a World Baseball Classic, and this team didn't want to be the first.

But Australia was a formidable opponent, and it was the Australians who had all the good early scoring chances. It was 1-0 through four innings, before Cuba loaded the bases off Lachlan Wells, the impressive 20-year-old Twins prospect.

Roel Santos reached on a two-out single, Alexander Ayala followed with an infield single and Wells walked Frederich Cepedea on a very close 3-2 pitch. That brought up Despaigne, and on a 2-1 pitch, Wells' 91 mph fastball found too much of the middle of the plate. Despaigne crushed it to left field.

The Cubans had their lead, and eventually they had their win. While his ex-teammates have signed for big money in the U.S., Despaigne hasn't exactly been left with nothing. He has played professional baseball in Japan the last three years under a program approved by Cuban baseball and the Cuban government, and he recently signed a three-year contract for a reported $16 million to remain in Japan with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

Despaigne is so popular in Japan that he got loud cheers during pregame introductions Tuesday night, when Cuba played Japan. His grand slam Friday also brought cheers, and not just from the small group of Cuban fans sitting behind the first-base dugout.

Despaigne hit .389 with three home runs in six games in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. He's 4-for-10 with two home runs through three games of this tournament. The international success is nothing new for Despaigne, who had another big home run to beat Australia in the 2009 World Cup. He hit an even more dramatic home run seven years ago, in Tokyo, in the World University Gold Medal game against Team USA.

The game went to extra innings scoreless, and the Americans scored three times in the top of the 10th to take a 3-0 lead. Cuba loaded the bases in the bottom of the 10th, and Despaigne hit a walk-off grand slam.

"That's something I'll never forget," Despaigne said.

He won't soon forget Friday, either.

The World Baseball Classic runs through March 22. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament is being distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games at Marlins Park, Tokyo Dome, Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Mexico, Petco Park, as well as the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.

Danny Knobler is a contributor for MLB.com.

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