Kazmir was 17 and Morales had just turned 18 when Cuba turned away Team USA, 3-2, in the July 12 title game of the Junior Pan American Championships in Camaguey, Cuba.A high school sensation from Houston, Kazmir didn't pitch for his team in the finale. But Morales -- known now as one of the Majors' premier first basemen -- did. "Morales was a pitcher and also played in the outfield, I think, in that junior national tournament," Kazmir recalled. "I didn't hit against him, but he threw pretty hard. "He also was the big threat in their lineup. In the scouting report, he was the guy they identified as the one you didn't want to beat you." Morales, wrapping up his first full Major League season as a pivotal member of the American League West champion Angels' cast, smiled when he was asked about his days as a pitcher. "Sure, I remember that [tournament]," he said in Spanish. "I won the championship game. I went all the way, nine innings. I could throw a good fastball, and I had some other stuff." With hand gestures, he indicated several brands of offspeed deliveries. "I just remember that they beat us, and it was a wild crowd," Kazmir said. "They had a big home-field advantage, let's put it that way. And I do remember Morales. He kind of stood out." Kazmir was a power-armed lefty destined to be taken by the New York Mets with their first-round pick, No. 15 overall, in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft. He'd emerge as a two-time All-Star in Tampa Bay before coming to the Angels on Aug. 28 for three prospects. That summer of '02, when Kazmir was drafted, Morales was making a name for himself playing for Industriales, a Cuban powerhouse. He earned Rookie of the Year honors for 2001-02 in his native land. Morales became the first teenager since the great Omar Linares to start for the Cuban national team, playing right field and some infield in 2002. "I stopped pitching when I was 18," Morales said. "I enjoyed it, but I liked hitting more." He said he took up switch-hitting at age 12 and adapted quickly to batting from both sides of the plate. Morales defected to the U.S. on a boat in June 2004 after a dozen unsuccessful attempts, by his count. The Angels signed him to a six-year deal six months later after he'd established a residence in the Dominican Republic. He now calls Santo Domingo home -- along with first base, where he is turning double plays and heads with ever-improving glove and foot work. Settling into the heart of manager Mike Scioscia's lineup, his booming bat has produced 33 homers, 105 RBIs and a .303 average. One of Morales' strengths defensively is his ability to make quick, accurate throws to second with force. He started two double plays turned by shortstop Erick Aybar behind Ervin Santana in Monday night's 11-0 division-clinching rout of the Rangers. Morales also created a big bang with his bat in the clincher, pounding a two-run homer in the first inning. Approaching third base in one of the fastest home run gallops in the game, he clapped his hands together in a rare display of emotion. "It was a great feeling," he said. It took Morales just two seasons to make his Major League debut in 2006, but it wasn't until Mark Teixeira's departure for the Yankees' riches last winter that a steady job surfaced in Anaheim. Morales answered opportunity's knock with the same brand of confidence and authority he took to the mound eight summers earlier in central Cuba, beating a team that included a future Angels teammate. "That was a good time," Kazmir recalled of the two-week trip to Cuba. "Except for the final game." Team USA had outscored the opposition, 118-14, in 10 games before Morales slammed the door on the Americans. Kazmir couldn't have imagined that the Cuban pitcher who sent his team home with a silver medal, not gold, would someday be his teammate in Southern California -- and that they'd be panning for a different brand of gold together in October.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less