The U.S. and Cuba have had many thrilling games in international play, but they’ve never had one that ended like this.
And baseball purists everywhere may hope that they never see another one like it.
In the first test of the new international tiebreaker rules, Cuba scored two runs in the top of the 11th off of Jeff Stevens (Indians), then held the U.S. to one run in the bottom of the inning to hang on for a 5-4 win.
In an attempt to make baseball more “Olympics friendly,” any game that goes to the 11th inning now involves putting men on first and second to start the inning, while the manager picks where in the lineup he’ll start the 11th. It was an anti-climactic ending to what had been a thrilling back-and-forth game, but it did serve its purpose, as the game didn’t go to the 12th.
“The whole extra-innings thing, I think, is bogus,” U.S. first baseman Terry Tiffee (
Dodgers) said in the Associated Press’ account of the game.
The loss dropped the U.S. to 1-2, and puts some pressure on the team for the remainder of the round-robin schedule. Cuba (3-0) seems assured of advancing to the medal round thanks to its wins over the U.S., Canada and Japan. The top four teams of the eight teams advance to the medal round, so the U.S. still has some breathing room, but the remaining schedule isn’t easy, as three of the four teams left on the Americans’ round-robin schedule—Japan, Taiwan and Canada—are also battling for spots in the medal round.
“It has been a fine line between us being 1-2
and 3-0,” Team USA shortstop Jason Donald (Phillies) said. “That’s international
baseball for you. Every game, every run, every pitch—there is so much
riding on it. There is nothing we can do about it now. We have to
focus on our next game and get ready to go.”
In the top of the 11th (with runners placed at first and second on the tiebreaker rules), Cuba’s Giorbis Duvergel led off the inning with a perfect sacrifice bunt, putting runners at second and third. Michel Enriquez, who had two hits and three RBIs, followed with a two-run single. Stevens walked the following batter, but then managed to get an inning-ending double play to avoid further trouble.
The U.S. tried a similar approach to Cuba, as manager Davey Johnson elected to put No. 9 hitter Donald at second and leadoff man Dexter Fowler (Rockies) at first. But on the first pitch of the inning, Jayson Nix (Rockies) fouled a ball of his face while attempting to bunt.
The pitch angered Johnson, who told reporters after the game that he thought Cuba’s Pedro Luis Lazo was intentionally throwing at Nix. “Lazo’s a great pitcher. I’m sure their game plan was to throw right at
the guy’s head,” Johnson told the AP. “It bounced up and hit him in the eye. No game of
baseball is worth that . . . I told my guys, ‘They’re going to do
something crazy, and that was their crazy play.’ In my wildest
imagination I didn’t think they’d throw right at my player’s coconut.”
Lazo rushed to home plate to check on Nix after the play but disputed that he threw at Nix. “It’s one thing if the ball hit him in the face, but it hit the bat
first,” Lazo said, according to the Associated Press. “This is not
right (what Johnson said). This is not correct.” Backing up Lazo’s contention, it wasn’t a situation where one would normally try to bean a player—as it would have put the winning run on first base and loaded the bases.
If Nix is unable to play in the rest of the tournament, which was being reported as he walked off with a bloodied face, the U.S. will be down to a skeleton crew of position players. Because of the need to carry 12 pitchers on the 23-man roster, thanks to team’s mandated pitch counts to satisfy major league organizations, the U.S. entered the tournament with only three backup position players.
With Nix out, Jason Donald and Brian Barden are the only remaining middle infielders, although third baseman Mike Hessman could slide over to shortstop. (He’s played five games at short this season for Triple-A Toledo.) Also, no one else on the roster has played second base in the minor leagues this season, though Barden has played 64 games there as a pro.
Nix’s replacement Barden was able to get the bunt down to move
runners to second and third, and Terry Tiffie’s deep fly ball easily
scored Donald and moved Fowler to third, but Matt Brown (Angels), Team USA’s top hitter in its first two games, hit a pop fly in foul territory behind
the plate that Eriel Sanchez snagged to end the game.
Lazo threw the final five innings for Cuba, allowing only two hits and one run while striking out five. Cuba got two runs off U.S. starter Trevor Cahill (Athletics) in the first as Cahill battled a case of nerves and struggled with command in the first inning. Cahill settled down to throw five solid innings.
Team USA tied the score in the fourth as Tiffee doubled and scored on Nate Schierholtz’s double after a long at-bat, as Schierholtz (Giants) fouled off pitch after pitch when down 0-2. John Gall (Marlins) tied it up with a bloop double to left and was the first American who batted righthanded to get a hit off sidearming starter Luis Rodriguez, who struck out seven in five innings.
The game remained tied until the eighth. Alfredo Despaigne homered for Cuba in the top of the inning, but Nix homered for the U.S. in response to tie the game back up at 3-3. That was the only run Lazo allowed in his six innings. “We couldn’t hit him,” Brown said, and Cuban manager Antonio Pacheco (a former longtime teammate of Lazo’s on national teams), added, “Lazo was marvelous.”
The U.S. had a chance to end it in the bottom of the 10th, as Taylor Teagarden was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning. Donald successfully bunted him to second, but Fowler and Nix both popped out to end the threat.
“We were in that game,” Tiffee said. “It was a good game and we just
didn’t come up with some key hits. They played well, we played well
and they beat us, so hat’s off to them.”