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Olympic Notebook:
Wilkerson doing his best in unfamiliar position

By John Manuel

September 18

BLACKTOWN, New South Wales, Australia—As Team USA's roster came together in late August, the word was out. Cubs überprospect Corey Patterson was going to be Team USA's center fielder.

Then Patterson suffered a sprained ankle, and Team USA offered him a spot on the team but didn't guarantee he would be on the active roster. So Patterson and the parent Cubs decided the 20-year-old would remain in Double-A West Tenn through the Southern League playoffs, followed by a callup to Chicago.

Patterson's departure left a hole on Team USA's roster. Without him, the United States lacks a true center fielder. Brad Wilkerson (Expos), who played some center field in college at Florida and in the minors, has started the first two games in center. Against Japan, Anthony Sanders (Mariners) came in the game in the top of the ninth inning as a defensive replacement, playing center field as Wilkerson moved to right to replace Ernie Young (Cardinals).

Wilkerson understands he's not the second coming of Garry Maddox in center field. But he remains confident he and Sanders can get the job done in center for the Americans in Australia.

"I feel like I need to get out there and play more, get more experience, and that's the biggest factor," Wilkerson said Monday after Team USA's easy 11-1 win against South Africa. "I've been working hard during batting practice on getting reads off the bat and working on my jumps. I'm trying to get better at going back on balls. Anthony's working hard in BP, too, and we're both doing everything we can to improve out there."

Wilkerson didn't many chances against South Africa, making one putout. But he figured prominently in the Japan win, failing to cut off a line drive to the gap that turned into a triple for the Japanese. Moved to right, Wilkerson made a nice running catch in foul territory in the top of the 13th.

"I took a bad route to the ball and the grass was a little wet, so I slipped down," Wilkerson said of the triple. "That's the kind of ball where if I'm more used to playing out there, maybe I take a better route and make the play."

Team USA hopes Wilkerson's first couple of games in Sydney are experience enough.

South (Africa) Siders

Maybe it was the lights. Maybe it was because most of their players are actually amateurs in what is the first Olympic baseball tournament dominated by professionals.

Mostly it's that South Africa is a baseball neophyte, a team just glad to be here. That's why Cuba beat South Africa 16-0 in a no-hitter, and why the South Africans can claim a moral victory after leading Team USA for half an inning en route to an 11-1 loss Monday night.

"I did think for a little bit that we were in the game," South Africa manager Raymond Tew said. "We were getting around on (Jon Rauch), got some good swings. I thought our errors hurt us, because we could have gotten out of some innings."

Indeed, catching the ball was a chore for South Africa. Second baseman Kevin Johnson, a former professional soccer player and now a civil engineer, had a liner go off his glove for what was charitably ruled a single by Wilkerson. Wilkerson also got a triple in the first inning when right fielder Ian Holness took a circular route to the ball and missed the well-hit but catchable drive by about a foot.

First baseman Nick Dempsey, a former Dodgers farmhand who had South Africa's first Olympic RBI with a single in the first, whiffed on a foul popup, and center fielder Jason Cook dropped a Mike Neill liner. South Africa did have one defensive gem, as shortstop Paul Bell (Brewers) made a nice play on Brent Abernathy's hard-hit ball.

Tew said South Africa's players have very little experience playing night games, with few fields so equipped in their country.

"I'm not sure that was a factor, because it seems that we play better under the lights," Tew said. "But on the high flies, possibly. We missed a few."

South Africa does still have its ace in the hole in righthander Tim Harrell, an American missionary who pitches in the Dodgers system. Harrell didn't start against either Cuba or the U.S., instead being held out for Tuesday's matchup against Italy.

"It's our best chance to win a game," Tew said. "We've beaten them before, so I see no reason why we can't beat them again."

That's the Olympic spirit.

Olympic Flames

Devil Rays righthander Matt White didn't make the final U.S. 24-man roster. Like the other alternates, he went back to the States, but unlike the others, he returned to Australia to root for Team USA. His mother had already planned to make the trip, White said, so he came out, too . . . One of the most interesting and unfortunate aspects of Monday night's game arose over the pursuit of a foul ball. On a pop off the bat of South Africa's Clint Alfino, one overzealous spectator tumbled over a chair, knocking over another spectator with a loud crash. The crasher wasn't seriously hurt, but the crashee (a journalist we won't name here) suffered a bad gash to the right of his right eye and a dislocated knee.

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