• Play Ball! Tommies face Cuban all-stars today

    Play Ball! Tommies face
    Cuban all-stars today

    By Doug Hennes

    HAVANA –. As much as the
    University of St. Thomas baseball team has enjoyed the chance to
    experience what everyone constantly says is a “once-in-a-lifetime
    opportunity” to visit Cuba, that experience takes on a different
    meaning today.

    It is time to set aside
    the receptions, the seminars on the Cuban economy and culture and
    the tours of Old Havana, “and get down to business,” one player
    said.

    It is time to play baseball.

    The Tommies will take the
    field at the 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano at 2:30 p.m. (EST)
    today to play a team of all-stars from the University of Havana
    and other higher education institutions. Estimates vary greatly
    on the size of the crowd; one Havana radio reporter expects 5,000
    fans and university officials predict as many as 30,000.

    Coach Dennis Denning and
    the Tommies will go into the game with two weeks of practice – eight
    sessions in climate-controlled Coughlan Field House on the snowbound
    St. Paul campus and three days in the 75-degree sunshine of Havana.
    Over breakfast on Tuesday morning, Denning talked about how ready
    his team is to play an important game against an esteemed opponent.

    “I’m comfortable . . . and
    I’m not comfortable,” he said.

    “I’m comfortable in the
    progress we’ve made in such a short time, but I’m very uncomfortable
    with where we are offensively. We will be in trouble if they have
    good pitchers, especially hard throwers, and our scouting report
    says their pitchers are good. I’m apprehensive about our hitting.”

    It usually takes a couple
    of months for the Tommies, who haven’t played since the NCAA Division
    III title game last June, to round into shape. Under normal circumstances,
    St. Thomas wouldn’t begin indoor workouts until Feb. 1, and here
    it is about to play a team that began its season last November.

    “Rhythm is so important
    in every aspect of baseball,” Denning said. “Once you get into a
    certain rhythm, individually and as a team, the game is different.
    You can spot it when you got it, and we don’t have it yet.”

    Denning also is concerned
    about the little things on which a game can turn. His teams – four
    MIAC champions in five years at St. Thomas and six state champions
    in 17 years at Cretin-Derham Hall – have been peerless when it comes
    to mastering basic skills and fundamentals, but he still worries.

    “Bunting, handling rundowns,
    going from first to third – it takes many hours of practice to pull
    all of those things off, he said. “We haven’t had those hours. We
    just have had to jump over a lot of it.”

    All of those laments aside,
    Denning exudes confidence. He told a Radio Havana reporter after
    the Tommies’ 90-minute workout Tuesday morning at Estadio Latinoamericano
    that his message to them would be to play with the same kind of
    passion that marks Cuban baseball. He delivered that message a few
    minutes later.

    “Come in here hustling,
    playing with passion and enjoying yourselves,” he said.

    The players are up for the
    challenge. Brian Toov, a senior righthander from Austin, will start
    on the mound. He was a staff ace as a sophomore but had arm trouble
    last year and pitched sparingly in the regional and national tournaments.

    Denning said he chose Toov
    because he has “ice in his veins,” and the biology major shrugged
    and smiled about the remark.

    “I don’t know where that
    one came from,” he told reporters, but he has a simple strategy.
    “Just throw strikes and let them hit it.”

    Toov likely will be relieved
    first by Brian Edstrom, a sophomore from Totino Grace, and then
    senior captain Mike Honsa (Cretin-Derham Hall).

    “It’s all a little overwhelming
    right now,” Honsa said. “We finally got into the stadium today,
    and seeing everything here . . . well, we just want to play ball.”

    Denning and his coaches
    couldn’t agree more.

    “This is not something we
    have to win,” Denning said. “I know I’m expecting too much,
    but I still don’t want to be disappointed. We have pride in our
    team, and doggonit, we want to play well. Our performance won’t
    be because of lack of effort.”

    Click
    here for the UST starting lineup

    Click
    here for Odds and Ends about the trip

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