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2004 Olympics: Cuba Wins Third Olympic Gold
Compiled By John Manuel
With a nearly new cast of players and a familiar formula, Cuba claimed Olympic gold in baseball for the third time in four Olympiads.
A four-run sixth inning powered by RBI hits from Eriel Sanchez and Eduardo Paret helped lift Cuba to a 6-2 win over Australia for the 2004 Olympic gold medal. Cuba previously earned gold medals in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics.
The Cubans prevailed despite having turned over its national team to a younger group of position players, and with the top pitchers of its 2000 silver medal team--Jose Contreras, Jose Ibar and Maels Rodriguez--all having either defected or been barred from the team. Nevertheless, new stars such as veteran lefthander Adiel Palma (who won three times in Athens), outfielder Frederich Cepeda and second baseman Youlieski Gourriel combined with holdovers such as Paret, catcher Ariel Pestano and pitchers Norge Vera and Pedro Luis Lazo to lead Cuba back to the top of the international baseball world.
Making its first appearance in the medal round, Australia will go home with the silver medal. It's Australia's first medal in Olympic baseball competition.
"This is a very emotional moment," said Australian DH Andrew Utting, a former Orioles farmhand. "I definitely feel a little disappointment, but after all this calms down, I'm sure I will be very satisfied (with a silver medal)."
Holding on to a 2-1 lead, Cuba struck with four runs off Australia starter John Stephens (Red Sox) in the top of the sixth to put the game out of reach. Osmani Urrutia, Cepeda and Pestano opened the frame with singles to load the bases with no outs. Sanchez then knocked a two-run single past third baseman Glenn Williams (Blue Jays) and into left field, scoring Urrutia and Cepeda. Lefthander Ryan Rowland-Smith (Mariners) relieved and almost got out of the jam, but with two outs Paret added a two-run double down the third-base line to open up a five-run lead.
A day after having problems in his start against Canada, Palma delivered a quality performance out of the bullpen to earn his third win of the Olympics. Australia rallied to score one in the eighth on a pair of two-out walks and an RBI single by pinch-hitter Brett Tamburrino (Twins). But Palma retired Rodney van Buizen (Dodgers) on a sharp liner to left field in the next at-bat.
Palma worked 3 2/3 innings before giving up consecutive singles to Gavin Fingleson (independent) and Brett Roneberg (Red Sox) to open the ninth inning. Reliever Danny Betancourt came on to face Dave Nilsson, and the best Australian player in major league history just missed a three-run homer on the second pitch. Center fielder Carlos Tabares made the catch on the edge of the warning track, though, and Betancourt retired Williams and Brendan Kingman to end the game.
"I have no words to express my happiness," Tabares said. "This medal is very important to me."
The Cubans collected 13 hits on the evening with five hitters collecting two hits apiece (Paret, Gourriel, Urrutia, Cepeda and Pestano). Australia had just seven hits with Fingleson and Roneberg leading the way with two hits apiece as well. Stephens took the loss, allowing six runs on 10 hits before being taken out in the middle of the sixth inning.
Cuba gained control of the game in the fourth inning on a two-run homer from Cepeda, his second of the Olympics. Cepeda drilled a 2-1 pitch from Stephens that got out to right-center field. Australia battled back and cut the deficit to one run in the bottom of the fifth inning as Paul Gonzalez opened the frame with a towering homer to right field off Cuba's starter, Vera.
It was the last batter Vera faced, as he allowed one run on three hits with two walks and two strikeouts. Reliever Vicyohandri Odelin didn't fare much better as he allowed two walks and was pulled after facing only three batters. Palma then came in and got Nilsson to fly out before walking Williams to load the bases. With the bases loaded, Kingman battled Palma to a 3-2 count before taking a called third strike looking to end the inning.
Right before the top of the fifth inning, Australia manager Jon Deeble was ejected from the game after protesting a call made on a play in the fourth inning. With two outs and two runners on base, Thomas Brice (White Sox) hit a deep fly ball to center field that was caught by Tabares against the wall and called out. Deeble protested the call and was ejected from the game.
"There were a number of missed calls that hurt our team," Deeble said. "For example, six umpires couldn't tell if the ball hit the center-field wall or not. Other than that, the team played outstandingly. This is a great team to coach. We are happy our fans got behind the team, and overall we are satisfied."
Andrew Kitick, an assistant sports information director at the University of South Carolina, is serving as a media liaison for the International Baseball Federation at the 2004 Olympics and will provide reports from Athens throughout the tournament. Baseball Canada media liaison Matt Charbonneau also is contributing to BA's coverage.