Loss to Cuba dents White Sox's playoff hopes

The New Zealand White Sox's hopes of qualifying for the women's world softball championships playoffs were dealt a blow today after a 1-0 loss to Cuba.

New Zealand, who started the tournament at Haarlem, near Amsterdam, with a 5-1 win over Russia, had to beat Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Czech Republic to make the top-eight post-section phase.

Cuba - who have only sporadically attended previous world championships -  were an unknown quantity. They last played at this level in 2010 when they were ninth overall at Venezuela, three places above the White Sox.

But the Cubans toppled the Kiwis in a tight game with the only run in the third inning after a couple of White Sox errors on two outs.

Cuba's leadoff batter in the top of the third struck out and the next hitter flied out to Te Reo Powhiri Matautia in leftfield.

But the experienced Yuselys Acosta made base on a safe bunt and scooted to second on pitcher Jennifer Feret's throwing error. Acosta advanced to third when a passed ball eluded catcher Mel Gettins and scored on a wild pitch.

New Zealand squandered a great scoring chance in the bottom of the fourth inning when they left the bases loaded.

Second baseman Danica Ferriso led off with a single to leftfield and captain Lara Andrews doubled to the right-centrefield gap. Katrina Nukunuku drew a walk to give the White Sox three runners aboard, but Cuban coach Indalecio Alefanarez then made his second pitching change of the inning.

He brought on Ainsley Lopez for Yusmari Pacheo, who had faced only one batter, Nukunuku - after replacing starter Yilian Tornes.

With bases loaded and the game hanging in the balance, the 29-year-old Lopez could not have had more pressure on her. But she responded mightily, striking out Stacey Webber and Rebecca Bromhead and then, after a pep talk from coach Alefanarez, forcing Feret to ground out to third base, leaving three Kiwi runners stranded.

Ferriso, the 19-year-old Hutt Valley infielder, collected her second safe hit, after beating out an infield single to shortstop in the bottom of the sixth inning.  But she was taken out when Andrews grounded out to shortstop for a double play.

The Kiwis' final hope evaporated in the seventh when Webber and substitute pitcher Tyneesha Houkaumu were both struck out.

New Zealand coach Naomi Shaw will no doubt regret that the White Sox bats dried up _ both teams managed only four safe hits.

But the Cubans played error-free ball while New Zealand's two blemishes in the fateful third cost them dearly.

The White Sox's pitching was again sound with starter Feret taking five strikeouts while giving up four hits, two each to Acosta (one a base-hit bunt) and catcher Katia Coello.

Reliever Houkaumu, who came into the game to face the second batter of the fifth inning, struck out three of the eight batters she faced without conceding a safe hit.

Ferriso (2), Andrews and Gettins got New Zealand's hits.

Ferriso is New Zealand's top batter after the first two games with four hits from six at-bats for a .666 average.

New Zealand face a tough game at 6am tomorrow (NZ time) against Canada, the second-ranked team in Pool A after their fourth-place finish at the 2012 world championships.

Canada thrashed the Czech Republic 8-1 today.

The Canadians may be a bridge too far, as are world champions Japan, but New Zealand will have to beat Puerto Rico, the Czech Republic and China to stand a shot at making the top-eight.

In other results today, Japan beat Russia 5-0, China edged out Puerto Rico 1-0, the United States thumped Botswana 7-0 and the host nation, Holland, lost their second game, 5-4, to Chinese Taipei.