Tempers flare as Cuba shuts down Team USA
By John Manuel
SYDNEYTwo-time defending gold medalist Cuba emphatically proved Saturday night that anybody wishing to wrest the championship from it will not do so without a fight.
Behind righthander Jose Ibar, Cuba dominated Team USA at Homebush Baseball Stadium, winning 6-1 to hand the Americans their first Olympic loss. Both clubs now have 5-1 records, the best among the tournament's eight teams.
If they can beat formidable Japan on Sunday, the Cubans will clinch the top seed for the four-team medal round, which begins Tuesday. If the Japanese win and the Americans beat Australia, then Team USA would be the No. 1 seed. It's also possible all three teams could finish at 5-2, in which case the first tiebreaker would be fewest runs allowed.
Saturday's game was filled with tense moments and one bench-clearing staredown. On three different occasions, U.S. players were on the top step of the dugout raring for a fight, and they came out onto the field en masse and in a hurry when Ibar plunked cleanup hitter Ernie Young (Cardinals) in the fourth inning.
By that time, Cuba already led 4-0, scoring all those runs in the first inning against lefthander Rick Krivda (Orioles). In his first appearance of the tournament, Krivda didn't get the job done, leaving pitches up in the strike zone and being punished for it.
"I ran into trouble when I walked Omar Linares," Krivda said. "They hit some high changeups, and even when I made a better pitch, Miguel Caldes was able to hit it into the gap. If I could have that first inning back, maybe it would be a different game.
"I wasn't involved when Ernie got hit, but that's an experienced team that tries to intimidate people and a pitcher with a lot of control. Maybe we'll play them a game and get a chance to react differently when one of our guys gets hit."
Young was more direct in his assessment of the game's hostilities, which included U.S. first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz (Twins) tripping Cuba's Caldes on an infield hit, and pinch-runner Yobal Duenas sliding spikes-high into U.S. catcher Pat Borders (Devil Rays), jarring a ball loose at the plate.
"Ibar had pinpoint control, and I'm the beneficiary of a 94-mph fastball in my shoulder," said Young, who entered the game leading all Olympic hitters with a .533 batting average. "When a guy strikes out 10-11 guys, I'll let you figure it out. I'm upset because I know he hit me on purpose. I can't speculate why he would do that. His team got four runs. Why wake up a sleeping dog?"
None of the incidents woke up Team USA's sleeping bats. Since scoring two runs against Italy in the first inning of a 4-2 win on Friday, Team USA has 10 hits and three runs (just one earned) in its last 16 innings. This time, it wasn't a submarining Korean or soft-tossing Italian they were flailing against. This was Ibar, regarded as either Cuba's fourth- or fifth-best pitcher, but one who said this was as well as he has pitched in international play.
Ibar spotted his low-90s fastball and was able to reach back for something extra when he needed to. His 110th pitch of the night was his hardest, arriving at 97 mph in the seventh inning and striking out third baseman Sean Burroughs (Padres). Ibar fanned 10 in seven three-hit, shutout innings, and nine of his strikeouts came against Team USA's five lefthanded hitters in its lineup. By the time Ibar left, the Cubans had a 5-0 lead.
They got most of it in the first, as left fielder Luis Ulacia reached on a bunt hit and Linares walked. With two out, Krivda had a 1-2 count on DH Antonio Pacheco, but the veteran singled to center to score Ulacia. Second baseman Oscar Macias followed with a run-scoring single to left, and Caldes followed with the game's biggest hit, a ripped double to the left-center field gap that made it 4-0.
Ibar never let Team USA in the game thereafter. He struck out the side in the second after walking Young and only allowed one runner into scoring position, in the seventh.
"My fastball was fine, but what was most important was my control," Ibar said. Regarding Young, he said, "It was not intentional. It got away from me and was badly interpreted."
The pro-Cuban crowdincluding most of the Australians in the throng of 14,010, some of whom participated in a "Cuba Cuba Cuba, oi oi oi!" chantinterpreted it their own way. Fans howled at Young the rest of the game, didn't seem to like Mientkiewicz' takedown of Macias in the fourth and booed Borders when he was writhing on the ground in pain in the eighth.
Cuban coach Servio Borges didn't understand what all the fuss was about.
"There is no antagonism on our part. It's just baseball," Borges said. "Team USA is a good team. We tried to do things properly. Both teams are strong and both played hard. We proved to be better tonight."
Both Borges and U.S. manager Tom Lasorda said they thought the Borders/Duenas incident was a clean play. Borges did take the opportunity, when it was presented, to respond to Lasorda's statement prior to the Olympics that he would dedicate a win against Cuba to the Cuban exiles in Miami.
Said Borges: "We dedicate this win to the 11 million people of Cuba who support us, watch us train and were awaiting this victory."
Lasorda wasn't backing away from his comments, though he was extremely disingenuous. He said he didn't think politics should be injected into baseball and that his team has no antagonism for the Cubans, "because this is the first time we played them." But he reiterated his desire to beat the Cubans for the Miami exiles, saying, "I don't think that's political. If you do, that's you."
Lasorda also lamented Team USA's inability to retaliate for Young's beaning because umpires warned reliever Jon Rauch (White Sox) he would be ejected if he did so. Rauch retaliated the best way he could, by dominating Cuba for four innings.
Rauch, Baseball America's 2000 Minor League Player of the Year, was one bright spot for Team USA, striking out eight to push his Olympics-best total to 21 in just 11 innings. One of Team USA's quartet of hard-throwing righthanded starters, Rauch surrendered just three hits and struck out four of the last six batters he faced.
"I didn't go out there and do anything different. I just threw strikes," Rauch said. "It's nice to go out and do well. It wasn't because it was the Olympics that I didn't retaliate, it was because the umpire told me if I did, I was out of the game. It's going to be handled the same way in any league."
In any tournament, with any players, the Cubans have handled Team USA. The victory pushed Cuba's record to 25-3 against the Americans in major international competitions.
USA 1 (5-1) Cuba 6 (5-1) AB R H RBI AB R H RBI Abernathy 2b 5 0 1 0 Ulacia lf 4 1 1 0 Wilkerson cf 4 0 0 0 Gomez cf 3 0 0 0 Mientkiewicz 1b 4 0 1 0 Linares 3b 3 1 0 0 E. Young rf 2 0 0 0 Kindelan 1b 4 0 1 0 Cotton dh 4 0 0 0 Duenas pr/dh 0 1 0 0 Neill lf 3 0 0 0 Pacheco dh 2 1 2 1 Burroughs 3b 4 1 2 0 Scull ph/dh 2 0 0 0 Borders c 4 0 2 1 Macias 2b 4 1 1 1 Dawkins pr 0 0 0 0 Caldes rf 4 1 2 2 Everett ss 3 0 0 0 Pestano c 4 0 1 1 Kinkade ph 1 0 1 0 Mesa ss 2 0 2 1 Krivda p 0 0 0 0 Ibar p 0 0 0 0 Rauch p 0 0 0 0 Lazo p 0 0 0 0 George p 0 0 0 0 Heams p 0 0 0 0 Totals...... 34 1 7 1 Totals...... 32 6 10 6 Score by innings: R H E ---------------------------------------------- USA 000 000 001 - 1 7 2 Cuba 400 100 01 - 6 10 0 ---------------------------------------------- E - E. Young, Burroughs. DP - USA 1. LOB - USA 9, Cuba 7. 2B - Burroughs(1), Caldes. 3B - Mesa. SH - Ulacia, Gomez. K - Abernathy 2, Wilkerson 4, Cotton 3, Neill 3, Burroughs 2, Ulacia, Gomez, Linares 2, Kindelan 2, Macias 2, Caldes, Pestano 2. BB - E. Young, Neill, Linares, Mesa 2. IP H R ER BB SO WP BK HP IBB AB BF Fly Gnd Krivda L 0-1 2.0 5 4 4 1 1 0 0 0 0 9 11 0 4 Rauch 4.0 3 1 1 0 8 2 0 0 0 15 15 0 4 George 1.0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 2 4 0 2 Heams 1.0 2 1 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 6 7 2 0 Ibar W 1-0 7.0 3 0 0 2 10 0 0 1 0 24 27 4 7 Lazo 2.0 4 1 1 0 4 0 0 0 0 10 10 1 1 WP - Rauch 2. HBP - by Ibar (E. Young). Umpires - Home:Rey 1st:Leone 2nd:Yoon 3rd:Contreras Attendance: 14,010
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