Team USA’s Olympic qualifying team got off to a 2-0 start this weekend in Cuba, even if it went off-script. Credit Athletics farmhand Kurt Suzuki and his walk-off homer Sunday for that.
Team USA banged out 10 hits–four by leadoff hitter Skip Schumaker (Cardinals)–and opened its appearance in the Olympic qualifying tournament by defeating Canada 9-3 on Saturday. That was supposed to be the hard part, but that came Sunday against fiesty Brazil, when the Americans needed Suzuki’s 10th-inning solo shot to claim an 8-7 victory and improve to 2-0 in pool play headed into a game with co-leader Mexico.
U.S. starter Nick Adenhart (Angels) couldn’t get through five innings against Brazil, and closer Henry Owens (Mets) gave up a game-tying home run in the top of the ninth to Brazilian center fielder Tiago Magalhaes. It was Magalhaes’ second homer and Brazil’s fifth of the game. But in his first at-bat of the game, Suzuki belted his home run to left field off losing pitcher Marcelo Arai.
Suzuki’s heroics made a winner of reliever Jeff Farnsworth (White Sox), who struck out 10 in a scoreless 10th inning. Five U.S. pitchers rang up 13 strikeouts in the game, but Farnsworth was the only one that didn’t give up a run to Brazil, which out-hit the Americans 11-6. However, Brazil’s pitchers gave up 12 walks, and the U.S. had three homers of its own, with Billy Butler (Royals) and Chad Allen (Royals) both going deep.
Adenhart struggled for his second straight outing, meaning he probably won’t be counted upon for any crucial games as the tournament advances. The Canadians had won their last game against the Americans, knocking around Adenhart in a 6-3 exhibition victory Wednesday in Kissimmee, Fla. In the first game of the qualifier, however, the U.S. jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning and never looked back. Lefthander Heath Phillips (White Sox) went six strong innings for the victory, allowing five hits and no walks while striking out four. Reliever Lee Gronkiewicz (Blue Jays) gave up a pair of runs in the ninth before Henry Owens (Mets) put out the fire with a pair of strikeout to end the game.
Schumaker and third baseman Mike Kinkade (Marlins)–two of the five starters in the American lineup with big league experience–were the only Americans with multi-hit games.
It was the veterans, not the prospects, who led Team USA, as DH Billy Butler (Royals), shortstop Brandon Wood (Angels) and center fielder Michael Bourn (Phillies) went a combined 0-for-9 with a run scored while batting in the 7-9 spots in the order.
Host Cuba got off to a 2-0 start, but it wasn’t easy. After dispatching with Colombia 14-0 to begin the event, Cuba spotted Panama four first-inning runs Sunday and trailed 5-0 before rallying to beat Panama 7-6. Yulieski Gourriel and Alexei Ramirez homered as Cuba out-hit Panama 9-6 and scored two runs apiece in the third, fifth and seventh innings to tie the game before getting the winning run in the ninth. Closer Pedro Luis Lazo, as usual, was there at the end to secure Cuba’s 2-0 start.
Also in Group A, Nicaraguan veteran lefthander Oswaldo Mairena, a former Marlins big leaguer, threw a complete-game four hitter as Nicaragua also got off to a 2-0 start, beating Colombia 4-0. In its opener, the Nicaraguans beat Ecuador 11-1. Panama and the Dominican Republic, which fielded a team of non-prospects (with ex-Diamondbacks farmhand Jhensy Sandoval perhaps the most recognizable name) were both 1-1 in the group.
Mexico improved to 2-0 in Pool B by defeating Venezuela 5-4 Sunday with a run in the bottom of the ninth. Mexico, whose roster features veteran pros who dot the Mexican League leaderboards (such as left fielder Luis Suarez and catcher Geronimo Gil), was a late addition to the tournament, taking the place of Aruba and making Pool B that much stronger. It and the U.S. are the only two undefeated teams in Pool B.
Canada picked up its first win Sunday, winning in dramatic fashion. Canada scored four in the ninth to beat Puerto Rico 6-5, with Sebastien Boucher (Mariners) and Team Canada mainstay Stubby Clapp hitting two-run doubles in the ninth for the victory. Infielder Emerson Frostad (Rangers) singled to ignite the rally. Outfielder Michael Saunders (Mariners) threw out a Puerto Rican runner at the plate in the eighth to keep Canada in striking distance.
Baseball America has not correctly reported the format of the Olympic qualifier, which in reality is not a tournament but more like a 12-game season. Three games remain in pool play, with the U.S. playing Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela to finish. After a day of rest, the next phase of the tournament begins.
The top four teams from Pool A will advance to play the top four teams from Pool B, creating a seven-game record–in Team USA’s case, three games against Pool B teams, four against the teams from Pool A. The two teams with the best records at the event will qualify for Beijing, with the other teams ranked for the purposes of the second-chance qualifier, scheduled for 2007.
These changes were made, at least in part, as a reaction to the 1999 and 2003 qualifiers. In 1999, Canada had the best record in the event, beating Cuba and the U.S., but still failed to qualify for the 2000 Olympics when it lost to Cuba in a medal-round semifinal. In 2003, Team USA dominated the round robin but lost to Mexico in quarterfinal play. There is no one-and-done round in this event. Baseball America regrets the error.