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Olympic Notebook:
Starters put Team USA in driver's seat

By John Manuel

September 21

SYDNEY—As significant as Cuba's first loss in Olympic baseball play is—and it's significant—one story overshadows it in the 2000 Olympic baseball tournament. A number, actually.

The number is 0.33. That's the ERA for Team USA's four starters in its first four games. The Americans have won all four, two in dramatic fashion against Asian qualifiers Japan and Korea, and two with relative ease against the Netherlands and South Africa. The United States is the lone undefeated Olympic team.

The number—delivered by righthanders Ben Sheets (Brewers), Jon Rauch (White Sox), Kurt Ainsworth (Giants) and Roy Oswalt (Astros)—stems from 27 2/3 innings pitched and two runs allowed, one earned. The quartet has given up just 20 hits and four walks while striking out 25. If any other team is going to win the gold medal, it's going to have to go through Team USA's starters to get it. And it won't be easy, because these pitchers aren't going to give anything away.

"Those guys are unbelievable," said Team USA shortstop Adam Everett (Astros), whose defense has helped contribute to the low ERA. "It's obvious they have great arms, and we have some pitchers whose arms are better than others. But they all battle. They all have great heart, and they're battling like anything."

Catcher Pat Borders (Devil Rays), a 12-year big league veteran, isn't normally the type to gush. But since first catching this staff at a Team USA practice in San Diego, he hasn't been able to help himself. "You could put these guys in the big leagues right now," he said, "and they wouldn't embarrass themselves."

Considering that Ainsworth, Rauch and Sheets were in college as recently as May 1999, Borders' comment tells you what kind of stuff these inexperienced pitchers have.

Take Oswalt, who gave up eight hits against Korea. He walked two in his seven innings, but he had six key strikeouts—set up mostly by his 92-93 mph fastball—and kept the Koreans off the board. Team USA finally got the win in dramatic fashion in the bottom of the eighth on first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz' grand slam.

"Those guys are battling their butts off," right fielder Ernie Young (Cardinals) said. "Ozzy made some mistakes but he battled. He never gave in. The best thing our guys do is they keep fighting and never give in."

The same can be said for Team USA, which is off to about as impressive a start as could be. Team USA's pitching and defense have been superb. The bullpen hasn't been airtight, but righthanders Ryan Franklin and Todd Williams (both Mariners) have pitched very well, and lefthanders Chris George (Royals) and Bobby Seay (Devil Rays) have shown the ability to neutralize big lefthanded bats late in close games.

The defense has had its low points, such as the error by third baseman Mike Kinkade (Orioles) that prolonged the Japan game, but Kinkade redeemed himself in the win against Korea, turning a line-drive one-hopper into a crucial double play in the sixth inning of a scoreless game. While the Mike Neill-Brad Wilkerson-Young outfield isn't exactly making anyone run for a nickname, it's doing an adequate job and playing hard. In the infield, second baseman Brent Abernathy (Devil Rays), Everett and Mientkiewicz are clearly the best at their positions in the tournament.

No one would expect a team of minor league prospects and Four-A players to put up offensive numbers like the 2000 White Sox, but Team USA has proven to be an improvement over its 1999 Pan American Games predecessor. Only Everett—"I don't know what I'm hitting, but I think I'm not," the 0-for-14 shortstop said—hasn't delivered. The rest of the team, with the exception of catchers Borders and Marcus Jensen (Twins), has come up with key hits when needed.

Manager Tom Lasorda has settled on a set lineup, balancing lefthanded and righthanded hitters. Team USA hasn't seen a lefty pitcher yet, so continued production from the likes of DH John Cotton, Mientkiewicz, Neill and Wilkerson is crucial. Lasorda and hitting coach Reggie Smith have displayed a knack for putting on the hit-and-run at the right time, and Team USA is 6-for-7 on stolen bases.

In short, Team USA should enjoy its day off Thursday, when it will head to the beach with an NBC crew along for the ride. It deserves a day at the beach.

The Rest Of The Field

Of course, Cuba's 4-2 loss to the Dutch was keeping the baseball venue buzzing Wednesday, and will be talked about the rest of the tournament. It was a shocking defeat in that the Cubans were powerless at the plate against Ken Brauckmiller, who didn't have overpowering stuff but hit his spots with all his pitches. Scouts in attendance were shocked at the Cubans' approach at the plate, which saw even the smaller players on the roster swinging for the fences.

Cuba (3-1) also exhibited its typical nonchalance during round-robin play. Omar Linares, the team's famed third baseman, made a crucial error that helped lead to the Dutch team's four-run inning. Veteran shortstop German Mesa, running at third base with one out, virtually gave up trying to score on a routine grounder to Dutch shortstop Robert Eenhoorn. Mesa offered no resistance after Eenhorn threw to catcher Johnny Balentina, who calmly applied the tag to the still-standing Mesa.

Observers wonder how much the Cubans can turn it on and off. On the heels of a 134-game winning streak at major international tournaments, Cuba now has lost games in for of the last five such competitions. Last year, Cuba tanked a round-robin game against Canada so it would not have to face Team USA in the Pan Am semifinal. It worked, as Cuba beat Canada 3-2 in the semis, then beat the United States to Jose Contreras to win the gold.

Some chalk Cuba's vulnerability up to the introduction of wood bats, others to the use of professionals, still others to age. All three are factors in making Cuba, while still a medal favorite, no longer the prohibitive gold-medal favorite. The Netherlands didn't get its win against the back of the Cuban rotation, instead beating ace Norge Vera and wunderkind Maels Rodriguez.

To avoid outfielder Luis Ulacia's forecast that Cuba could qualify for the medal round as the No. 4 seed, the Cubans will have to avoid another upset in its last three games, all of which could pose problems. Friday, Cuba plays Australia, which at 2-2 has struggled more than it had hoped but still has a crucial win against Korea that has kept it in medal contention. Australia will start former big league righthander Shayne Bennett.

Cuba and Team USA square off Saturday, when Team USA will use veteran lefthander Rick Krivda. It's a bold choice by Lasorda and pitching coach Phil Regan, but they feel experience (and a lefthander) mean more than power against Cuba, and last year's Pan Am experience supports their claim. The Cubans pounded righthander Brad Penny in two appearances, and Penny's resume at the time closely resembles those of Team USA's current young righties.

Sunday, in the final game of the round-robin, Cuba plays Japan. Unless the Cubans have lost to both the Aussies and the Americans, this game will be for positioning in the medal round. It could end up as a preview of a semifinal rematch.

Japan (3-1) has an easier schedule from this point, playing South Africa (0-4) on Friday, a grudge match with Korea on Saturday and then Cuba. The Japanese will have to decide when to use ace righty Daisuke Matsuzaka again, but pitching isn't the problem for Japan. The team's offense, with five starters from the nation's major leagues, stalled against Team USA but was consistent in wins against Australia, Italy and the Netherlands. Japan has looked like the second-best team in the Olympics, ahead of Cuba.

Korea (1-3) and Australia (2-2) rank as the biggest disappointments to date. The Koreans have played well against Cuba and Team USA in defeat, but their loss to Australia means they're unlikely to reach the medal round. Korea likely has to win out in its games against the Netherlands (Friday), Japan (Saturday) and South Africa (Sunday).

The host Aussies have a tough schedule ahead with games remaining against Cuba and Team USA, as well as Italy on Saturday. The Aussies likely will have to upset either Cuba or the United States to reach the medal round.

The tournament's surprise team of course is the Netherlands (2-2). The Dutch have the easiest remaining draw with games against Korea, South Africa and European rival Italy (1-3). A very attainable 2-1 record in those games should be good enough for a berth in the medal round.

But the Dutch are still looking at a No. 4 seed in all probability, which will make Cuba, Japan and Team USA want the No. 1 seed even more. For all the Netherlands' pluck, its talent lags behind those three powers. It will be a significant advantage for the No. 1 seed to face the Netherlands while the other two gold-medal contenders battle each other.

Team USA is on its way to attaining that best-case scenario. It just has to continue what it's doing to make it come true.

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