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Contreras, Kindelan live up to reputation

By John Manuel

Team USA 3, Korea 2

Cuba 3, Japan 0

Orestes Kindelan
Orestes Kindelan
Photo: Robert Gurganus

SYDNEY—Jose Contreras and Orestes Kindelan have big-game reputations for Cuba (7-1) in international play, and they did nothing to tarnish those well-earned reputations Tuesday against Japan (4-4).

In a semifinal game at Homebush Baseball Stadium, the Contreras threw his second straight Olympic shutout and Kindelan drove in all of the game’s runs in Cuba’s 3-0 victory. Cuba plays Team USA in a bid for its third consecutive Olympic gold medal Wednesday evening, while Japan will play Korea for the bronze medal during the afternoon.

Tuesday’s game was a rematch of the 1996 gold-medal matchup, which Cuba won 13-9. This time, Japan had five members of its major leagues in the lineup and one on the mound, yet Contreras still dominated. He gave up six hits, walked none and struck out nine, four days after shutting out host Australia in a 1-0 win. Most observers expected Cuba to save Contreras for the medal game, but manager Silvio Borges reasoned, "You must win the semifinal first," so he went with his ace.

Contreras rewarded him complete command of his fastball, changeup, split-finger fastball and breaking pitches. Whenever he got into trouble, he picked his game up a notch, including a 97-mph fastball (on his 108th pitch) to get a ninth-inning groundout from Japan’s powerful third baseman, Norihiro Nakamura.

Japan had runners in scoring position three times, and each time Contreras rose to the occasion. In the fourth, an error and a single by Nakamura had runners at first and second with one out. On a 2-1 pitch, Contreras jammed first baseman Nobuhiko Matsunaka, and the big leaguer hit into a 1-6-3 double play to end the inning. In the sixth, with runners at first and third with one out after hits by Matsunaka and major leaguer So Taguchi, Contreras faced 14-year big league veteran Yukio Tanaka. He struck out Tanaka with a split-finger for the second out, then retired pinch-hitter Shinnosuke Abe on a routine grounder to second to end the threat.

And in the eighth, Japan right fielder Jun Hirose led off with his team’s hardest-hit ball, a lined double to left-center field. But Contreras easily handled the next three hitters as Hirose remained anchored at second.

"We had opportunities, but their pitcher was too good," Japanese manager Kozo Ohtagaki said. "They were better in terms of their concentration, taking advantage of their opportunities when we did not."

Cuba had Kindelan, who pushed his Olympic-leading RBI total to 11. He knocked in the game’s first run in the fourth, as Cuba responded after Japan’s missed opportunity. Center fielder Yasser Gomez singled to lead off. Third baseman Omar Linares hit a soft liner to second baseman Jun Heima, who made the catch but threw wildly to first in an attempt to double-up Gomez, and Gomez took second. Kindelan then punished a high fastball from Japan starter Tomohiro Kuroki, drilling a single to left that scored Gomez easily.

Cuba got its other runs in the sixth. Leadoff man Luis Ulacia ignited the rally with an infield hit and went to second on Gomez’ single to right. After Kuroki retired Linares on a routine fly to center, both runners moved up on what turned out to be a crucial wild pitch. With first base open, the Japanese pitched to Kindelan, who again teed off on a high pitch, this time for a two-run single to left. He was thrown out at the plate on DH Antonio Pacheco’s ensuing double—Cuba had another runner gunned at the plate in the eighth—but the damage had been done.

"We knew we were going to face good pitching, because Japan traditionally has good pitchers," Ulacia said. "We have put forth more effort lately, because we knew we were going to face very good pitchers."

Kuroki was good, scattering eight hits and not allowing a walk in seven-plus innings. But Contreras and Kindelan were better. Kindelan is now hitting a robust .387-2-11 in 31 at-bats in these Games.

"Kindelan is the best hitter in the world, so I knew to be well prepared for him," Kuroki said. "But the pitches were a little high, so he hit them. He’s not easy."

Neither are the Cubans, who have given up three runs in their four games since losing 4-2 to the Netherlands. Borges wouldn’t divulge his starter for the gold-medal contest, but it’s widely expected that he’ll send righthander Jose Ibar to the mound. Ibar dominated Team USA for seven innings Saturday night, striking out nine in Cuba’s 6-1 win. The rest of the staff, including hard-throwing righthanders Maels Rodriguez and Norge Vera and intimidating closer Pedro Luis Lazo, will be available.

Japan will attempt to keep its streak of being the only team to win a medal in every Olympic baseball competition since 1984 (when baseball was still a demonstration sport) by sending ace righthander Daisuke Matsuzaka tothe mound against Korea. Surprisingly, the Japanese have lost both of Matsuzaka’s starts, though he hasn’t factored in the decisions.

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