By Eric Edwards
November 5, 2003
PANAMA CITY, Panama–Station to station doesn't suit Canada's baseball team. The Canadians like the express.
Riding the long ball again early Tuesday night, Canada downed Mexico 8-2 and is now a game away from a perfect record in the preliminary phase of the Americas qualifier for the 2004 Olympic Games.
Four days removed from their five home run performance in an 8-5 victory over Puerto Rico, the Canadians didn't waste any time finding the other side of the fence Tuesday.
Stubby Clapp (Braves) homered in the first inning and Pete Laforest (Devil Rays) added another two-run shot in the third as Canada overpowered Mexican lefthander Rigo Beltran, an ex-big leaguer.
A matchup with defending World Champion Cuba awaited the Canadians on Wednesday.
The winner of that game finishes the elimination round with a 3-0 record and the top seed headed into the crossover quarterfinals. The tournament's organizing committee decided Tuesday not to count the Bahamas' forfeited games in the Group A standings, dropping both Cuba and Canada's records to 2-0.
Not that it makes much of a difference for either team. The real goal was to avoid facing either the United States or Panama in the quarterfinals, and the Canadians did that Tuesday by beating Mexico.
"It was a big win for us," said Canada manager Ernie Whitt. "This first round is all about positioning, and we're in good shape headed into the playoffs."
Colombia's 6-3 win Wednesday morning knocked Nicaragua out of the medal round; Canada will face either Colombia or Brazil in the quarterfinals. Colombia beat Brazil 5-4 earlier in the tournament, but Brazil still may have to play Team USA on Thursday in a rain-postponed round-robin game.
"We still want finish first in our Group," Whitt said. "The game against Cuba is still important to us, and because we won't play until Saturday I can use the pitchers I need to use."
Former big league all-star Jason Dickson will start for the Canadians against Cuban lefthander Ediel Palma.
Leadoff man Kevin Nicholson (Pirates) opened the game for Canada with a single off of Beltran and scored ahead of LaForest's second home run of the competition. LaForest just missed hitting his third in the seventh inning hitting a drive off the wall for a double.
Laforest did add two more hits later in the game, doubling in the seventh and ninth innings, and scoring the Canadians final two runs.
"I love playing at this stadium," said LaForest. "The background is great and I'm seeing the ball really well.
"I knew I hit (his home run) well, but I thought I might have gotten under it too much. But the ball was carrying much better tonight than it was the other afternoon in batting practice. I guess I've got to wait until the sun goes down."
Canadian starter Mike Johnson had a rough patch at the start of the game, allowing a long drive to Mexico's second hitter, Heber Gomez, that just missed clearing the left-field fence for a two-run homer. Jeff Guiel (Angels) instead made a leaping catch at the wall.
The Mexicans again got a leadoff hit to start the second inning, but Mario Valenzuela was eliminated from the basepaths when Rey Martinez grounded into a sharply struck 6-4-3 double play.
Johnson then retired the next 11 hitters in a row before Manuel Velez doubled with one out in the sixth and scored on a double by Daniel Fernandez.
"He hadn't pitched in seven days, so it took him a couple of innings to get in rhythm," said Whitt. "After that he was spotting his pitches much better. It was a nice outing."
Canada added two runs in the sixth on a two-run double by Ryan Radmanovich and scored lone runs in the seventh and ninth as Todd Betts hit a bases-loaded sacrifice fly and a run-scoring single to cap the scoring.
Chris Begg (Giants) came on to pitch two scoreless innings of relief and John Ogiltree (Blue Jays) came on in relief of Phil Devey in the ninth, allowing the Mexicans final run to score on a wild pitch before securing the victory.
Tuesday's victory put the Canadians into a tie atop Group A with Cuba entering Wednesday's showdown. The winner will be the top seed in the group heading into the medal round. With Team USA atop Group B heading into Wednesday night's matchup with Panama, the medal round will be mostly settled on Wednesday. The winners of Wednesday's showdowns would avoid each other until the gold-medal game. The most important games of the tournament, however, are the semifinals on Sunday; the winners of the semifinal games qualify for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
In other action, Brazil shut out Nicaragua 3-0 on a one-hitter by Claudio Xamada.
Cuba Ponders Lazo's Role
Cuban closer Pedro Lazo said he will be available for the quarterfinals despite throwing a boatload of pitches Monday night over five innings of relief in Cuba's 13-inning inning victory against Mexico.
"I'm always ready to pitch," said Lazo, who got the win in Cuba's 5-4 victory. "Whenever I'm needed, I'll take the ball."
Lazo's fastball was clocked in the mid-90s and his slider in the upper 80s, but the Mexicans were able to put a runner in scoring position with one out in the eighth, and scored the tying run in the ninth off of Lazo, who many thought wouldn't make this trip because of the potential for him to defect.
Lazo was particularly close to former Cuban ace Jose Contreras, who defected last year and pitched for the New York Yankees in the World Series this season.
Cuban manager Higinio Velez said he almost certainly wouldn't use Lazo against Canada Wednesday night in a game that will determine the top seed in Group A. Cuba had the day off Tuesday and will get another off day Thursday.
"Only in an emergency," said Velez. "Pedro is a veteran and I know him well. He's a workhorse, but we have to be wise with how we use him with the playoff coming up."
The Cubans, whose pitching depth doesn't extend much beyond starters Vichoandry Odelin, 23, and veterans Norge Vera and Lazo, isn't what is once was because of recent defections. Cuba will send lefthander Ediel Polma to the mound against Canada, which has a predominantly lefthanded lineup. Velez said how he uses his bullpen will depend on how the game unfolds.
"The game is important. It's for the top seed and an easier draw in the playoffs," said Velez. "Canada is another tough opponent. We're going to do all we can to beat them."
Puerto Rico Waits
Puerto Rico's baseball team practiced Tuesday while continuing its wait to find out which team it will play in the quarterfinals of the qualifying tournament.
Lefthander Stevenson Agosto worked out with the team for the first time since arriving in Panama on Sunday, turning in a bullpen session with Puerto Rico's pitching coach Ed Figueroa. Agosto threw 40 pitches over two innings in his Opening Day start Saturday for the Santurce Crabbers in Puerto Rico's winter league.
Figueroa and manager Sandy Alomar Sr. still aren't sure how Agosto will be used in this tournament. He'll be available out of the bullpen Friday and could also start Sunday, should Puerto Rico prevail in the quarterfinals. If the islanders lose Friday they'll be going home without one of the two spots at stake in this competition.
"He gives us another lefthander, something we could have used in the first game against Canada," said Figueroa. "We'll figure out how to use him as soon as we know which team we'll be playing."
Puerto Rico finished the preliminary round of this nine-country competition with a 2-2 record after picking up a forfeit victory Tuesday over the Bahamas, which didn't show up for the competition.
Puerto Rico finished third in Group A with Mexico's loss to Canada, so it will face the loser of the U.S.-Panama matchup.
Columbia Eliminates Nicaragua
Colombia scored five times in the first two innings and cruised to a 6-3 victory to eliminate Nicaragua from the competition Wednesday at the Americas qualifier for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Edison De Avila hit a three-run home run in the second inning, and Enrique Ortega added three hits and scored two runs for a Colombian team that finished a surprising 2-2 in pool play of this nine-country tournament.
Colombian starter Dorian Castro allowed nine hits and three runs and came within an out of going the distance. Nicaragua scored twice in the final inning before Luis Herrera came on to get the last out for the save.
The loss ended a disastrous run for the Nicaraguans that began at last month's World Cup in Havana. Seven players from that team were suspended for their poor behavior, leaving Nicaragun manager Noel Areas six players short of a full roster for this competition.
"Our performance on the field was a reflection of the support we received from our federation," said Areas. "We were basically abandoned."
The Colombian victory means that Team USA would only have to play its Thursday makeup game against Brazil should the Americans lose to Panama in the late game Wednesday.