• Cab ride in Cuba

    6,000 fans watch Tommies win 7-0 over Havana team

    Text by Doug
    Photos by Roger Rich

    HAVANA –. The
    last time the University of St. Thomas played baseball, it was in
    June and for the NCAA Division III title in Salem, Va. North Carolina
    Wesleyan scored in the first inning and the 1-0 lead held up.

    The Tommies went further
    south this week, to Havana, Cuba, to test themselves against a team
    of college all-stars from the University of Havana and several other
    schools. St. Thomas broke to the first-inning 1-0 lead, and as the
    game went deeper, coach Dennis Denning thought more than once about
    that tough NCAA loss.

    “I wondered if we would
    make it hold up,” he said of the slim lead against Equipo Caribe
    (Team Caribbean). “Fifth inning, sixth inning, seventh inning –
    we kept escaping, and then we busted through in the eighth. You
    know, we played well enough that I almost rather would have won

    The final score, courtesy
    of six runs in the top of the eighth, was 7-0 as four pitchers combined
    on a six-hit shutout of a highly regarded Havana team whose season
    began in November.

    More than 6,000 fans saw
    the game in Estadio Latinoamericano, easily the biggest crowd to
    ever watch the Tommies. The teams will return to the Estadio for
    a 2 p.m. (EST) game on Friday, and Denning will use the three pitchers
    and one fielder who didn’t see action on Wednesday.

    “Baseball is a game of momentum,”
    Denning told Havana Coach Raul Esteban Perez after the game. “We
    like to get the momentum in a close game, especially at the end.
    Your team played well – and we were lucky.”

    As “lucky” as Denning’s
    team was, his stars came through in some clutch moments, starting
    in the first inning.

    After second-baseman Jake
    Mauer (junior, Cretin-Derham Hall) walked on four pitches, he was
    forced at second by a Paul Rafferty (senior, Cretin-Derham Hall)
    grounder to Havana pitcher Mario Rodriguez. Rafferty moved to second
    and scored on a single by Scott Christiansen (junior, Anoka).

    Havana put together back-to-back
    singles in its half of the first off Brian Toov (senior, Austin),
    who was chosen by Denning to start because of the “ice in his veins.”
    Toov had arm problems during his junior year and expected to pitch
    only three innings on Wednesday but held on for five.

    Toov said his goal was just
    to “keep throwing the ball over the plate,” and he settled down.
    He gave up only one more hit, in the fifth, and he got a big boost
    when Christiansen caught a fly ball in left field for the second
    out and threw out the runner at home to end the inning.

    Bryan Edstrom (sophomore,
    Totino Grace) relieved Toov in the sixth and gave up back-to-back
    walks with one out. Denning pulled Edstrom in favor of Mike Honsa
    (senior, Cretin-Derham), who gave up a single to load the bases
    before striking out a Cuban on a full count and getting a ground-ball
    out to end the inning.

    Honsa is a lanky control
    pitcher but said he stayed mostly with his fast ball because “I
    couldn’t find the area code with my curve.” He gave up only a walk
    in the seventh, and by the time he got around to pitching the eighth
    he had a 7-0 – not 1-0 – lead.

    Ten Tommies batted in the
    top of the eighth. Designated hitter Dan Novak (senior, Sibley)
    got to first on an error and Matt Buzell (freshman, Rochester Mayo)
    pitch-ran for him and got to second on a sacrifice by Jon Guion
    (senior, Cretin-Derham Hall). Christiansen, who also had singled
    in the fourth and was hit by a pitch in the sixth, was hit again
    and Ryan Benson (junior, Armstrong) loaded the bases with a bunt.

    The big blow came from rightfielder
    Tony Wolverton (junior, Fairmont), who launched a fly over the head
    of his counterpart.

    “It was the biggest hit
    in my entire life – by far,” Wolverton said. “It was on a 1-2 count,
    and I watched it the whole way. I thought it might go out, but it
    hit the warning track and bounced into the stands. I don’t remember
    touching first, and when I got to second the crowd was going crazy.”

    The two RBI forced Rodriguez
    from the game. Reliever Maykel Neninger fared little better. He
    hit catcher Tom Wilberg (senior, Anoka) with a pitch to reload the
    bases, and shortstop John Frein (senior, Austin) walked to force
    in a run and make it 4-0. A wild pitch, a fielder’s choice and another
    single made it 7-0.

    Honsa shut down the Cubans in the bottom of the eighth and moved
    to first base in the ninth, when southpaw Adam Iten (junior, St.
    Cloud Cathedral) finished the game. Wolverton caught the final out,
    on a fly ball to right, and he kept the ball.

    “See this?” he said, flipping
    the ball from his glove. “This is cool.”

    The Rev. Dennis Dease, president
    of St. Thomas, joined the team on the field after the game and congratulated
    everybody. He posed for photos with Denning and assistant coaches
    Don Roney, Huck Shields, Mike Reeder and Chris Johson. A dozen cameras
    (still or video) clicked away for a couple of minutes.

    “You will all get plenary
    indulgences for this,” Dease told the coaches.