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For Cuban baseball players, beating Rays would be huge

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Much has been said, politicized and philosophized upon leading up to today's historic exhibition game between the Rays and the Cuban National Team.

But here's a question that's a little tougher to answer:

Does it matter if the Rays win?

"We try to win every game we play," manager Kevin Cash said Monday.

In theory, this one doesn't count.

The Rays are still in prep mode for their April 3 season opener, and this is just another spring training game — albeit in a slightly more exotic location than Port Charlotte.

Starter Matt Moore won't go more than six innings, most if not all of the regulars will be subbed out of the game and the Rays are planning to err on the side of caution in most moments of decision, especially knowing the Cuban players are in postseason form, with their playoffs paused for this week's event and the National Team assembled like an All-Star squad.

So does it matter?

"I don't think so," ace starter Chris Archer said. "In all reality, we're still trying to get our feet under us. Matt hasn't pitched that long and our hitters haven't seen that much pitching. We're definitely going to try and compete and give the effort and the energy. But win or lose, I don't think it's really that big a deal. I think we're smart enough to know this is spring training for us."

But there is a matter of pride in play, and on the international level, and that's something Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg acknowledged can be a factor.

So does it matter?

"It always matters if you win," Sternberg said. "If you're asking me if I would trade one for a regular-season one, no, those still count. But three years from now, 12 years from now, 20, when you and I are talking, you want to say, 'You did win that game in Cuba, right?' "

The game should mean something for the Cuban players, who would relish the chance to beat a major-league team as a way to show the quality of their play.

"It would be a huge thing if Cuba were to beat a major-league team," Cuban-born Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo said last week. "It has happened in the past. The Cuban players are going to be very motivated."

Plus, individually they will welcome the opportunity to show the Rays, and the other teams, that their skills are worthy of a big contract if they opted to leave.

And that has created at least a curiosity among the Rays coaches as to how aggressively and intensively the Cubans will play. Pitching up and in? Sliding in spikes high?

Moore said he expects it to be "a friendly," like an exhibition soccer match. But Mike Bordick, who played on the Orioles team that split a pair of 1999 exhibitions, said that while not "like a Rocky fight or anything like it, it was really competitive."

The Rays' No. 1 goal, everyone from Sternberg and Cash on down has said, is to get through the game healthy and get back to Tampa Bay to resume normal prep for the season.

But in addition to the cigars and the rum they bought Monday, coming home with a W would be a pretty memorable souvenir, too.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

For Cuban baseball players, beating Rays would be huge 03/21/16 [Last modified: Monday, March 21, 2016 10:45pm]
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