Sheets pitches U.S. to gold medal
By John Manuel
SYDNEYWhen Team USA came together for the 2000 Olympics, after a long and oft-criticized process, one player stood out.
"From Day One, we knew if we had one player to build around, if we needed to have somebody who could win the gold medal for us, that player was Ben Sheets," USA Baseball executive director Paul Seiler said. "We had an ugly group. We didnt have a Ferrari, but if we had one, it was Sheets."
With Sheets in complete control on the mound Wednesday night at Homebush Baseball Stadium, Team USA defeated two-time defending Olympic champion Cuba 4-0 to win its first full-fledged Olympic gold medal. The Americans (8-1) won in 1988 in Seoul, when baseball was a demonstration sport at the time. Since baseball became a medal sport, Team USA finished fourth in 1992 at Barcelona and third in 1996 at Atlanta.
"We had it set up a long time ago that he was going to pitch this game," manager Tom Lasorda said, "because we knew he was that good."
Against Cuba, which had beaten the Americans 25 times in 28 games at major international tournaments, Sheets was nearly perfect. He threw a three-hit shutout, striking out five without giving up a walk for the victory.
After nearly stumbling in the semifinals against Korea, Team USA played its best game when it needed it most, beating Cuba (7-2) in the Olympics for the first time in four tries.
"You guys in the media set the Cubans as the standard," right fielder Ernie Young (Cardinals) said. "This is our sport. Baseball was started by us and its played by us. And now we won the gold medal. Its the best game of my life, and if I dont ever play again, Ill be happy I was able to play in this game."
Sheets pitched comfortably with an early lead and never was out of control. His 84th pitch was clocked at 96 mph, and he touched 98 twice as he showed major league stuff against a battle-tested lineup. He needed just 103 pitches to go the distance, striking out the first two batters in the ninth before left fielder Mike Neills (Mariners) sliding, sno-cone grab of center fielder Yasser Gomez flair ended the game after Sheets struck out the first two batters in the ninth.
From the start, the game took a different tone from the preliminary-round meeting between the two teams. After using ace Jose Contreras to beat Japan in the semifinals, Cuba went with righthander Pedro Luis Lazo as its starter instead of righthander Jose Ibar. Lazo, who starts in Cuba's Serie Nacional, has served as Cuba's closer in recent international competitions and pitched the last two innings of Cuba's 6-1 victory in the teams' first matchup in Sydney.
Lazo gave up Team USA's only run in that game, and he surrendered the first run in this one. After striking out the first two hitters he faced, Lazo left a 2-1 pitch to Neill up and over the plate. Neill went with the pitch and blasted it to left field for his tournament-best third home run.
The whole tenor of the game changed at that moment. Any intimidation factor Cuba had over Team USA after winning the first meeting was gone. Sheets gave up a hit in the bottom half to third baseman Omar Linares, but when he struck out first baseman Orestes Kindelan looking, the Americans had the lead after one full inning and never looked back.
Cuba's hole got bigger in the fifth inning as Team USA scored three runs. Lazo had exited early, after giving up a leadoff double to DH John Cotton (Rockies) in the second. Ibar came in and pitched three scoreless innings before walking the leadoff hitter in the fifth, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz (Twins).
Catcher Pat Borders (Devil Rays), a 12-year big league veteran, then ripped a double to the right-center field gap, easily scoring Mientkiewicz. Borders was thrown out at third on a poor bunt by shortstop Adam Everett (Astros), but Ibar gave up a single to second baseman Brent Abernathy (Devil Rays) that put runners at the corners.
Cuba manager Servio Borges went to his bullpen, but instead of choosing lefthander Omar Ajete to face lefthanded hitters Brad Wilkerson (Expos) and Neill, he went to flamethrowing righthander Maels Rodriguez. Wilkerson walked, but Rodriguez struck out Neill, hitting 99 and 100 mph on the radar gun.
With two out and the bases loaded, Rodriguez faced Young, who broke open the game with a two-run single smashed right back through the box. Cuba now had 15 outs to score four times.
"The way Sheets was pitching," Abernathy said, "there was no team in the world that was going to score four runs off of him. To do what he did at his age (22) against that team is just unbelievable."
Sheets was able to go deep in the game because he rarely went deep in the count. In his first start of the tournament, Sheets threw 26 pitches in the first inning against Japan. After three innings against Cuba, he had thrown just 25. He faced three three-ball counts the whole game, and he retired each of those hitters on a groundout.
Sheets had plenty of defensive help. Mientkiewicz made a diving stop of a hard-hit Linares grounder in the fourth, and Everett routinely handled every groundball anywhere near him. Third baseman Mike Kinkade (Orioles), not known for his glove, handled a hard smash off the bat of right fielder Miguel Caldes in the eighth, and Young ended the inning by sliding to make a long, running catch in foul ground down the right-field line.
And in the ninth, Neills big grab ended it.
"I cant describe the feeling," Abernathy said. "We came here to do one thing, win the gold, and nobody gave us a chance to do it. We proved everybody wrong."
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