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Sheets pitches U.S. to gold medal

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Pitching was the key for Team USA

By John Manuel

SYDNEY—Veteran lefthander Rick Krivda (Orioles) knew it as soon as Team USA assembled in San Diego on Sept. 3.

He knew the pitchers in the Olympic team’s rotation were big prospects, and he knew they threw hard before he ever threw on the side with them. But in San Diego, he quickly realized these guys–righthanders Kurt Ainsworth (Giants), Roy Oswalt (Astros), Jon Rauch (White Sox) and especially Ben Sheets (Brewers)–had more than just impressive radar-gun readings.

"You can know they have good arms when you see the radar guns light up just in warmups—I have to throw my whole arm into it just to throw as hard as they do warming up," Krivda said. "But they’re also very mature, on and off the field, and that’s a credit to their organizations for realizing that when they drafted them.

"All these guys are levelheaded, and there are no egos with them."

Krivda made one start himself in the Olympics, and it was the only American loss. He gave up four runs in two innings against Cuba before Rauch replaced him, and the Cuban bats once again fell silent.

Team USA’s starters dominated the Olympics and were the single biggest reason the United States won its first gold medal in baseball since it became a medal sport in 1992.

The quartet’s numbers in the tournament are staggering: 4-0, 0.94. In 57 2/3 innings, they gave up eight runs (six earned), 37 hits and just six walks while striking out 48. The only category lacking is wins, as Team USA rallied to victory in its last at-bat on four occasions, making winners of relievers Ryan Franklin (Mariners) three times and Todd Williams (Mariners) once.

"Our job is to keep our team in the game every time we pitch," Oswalt said after getting his second no-decision in the 3-2 semifinal win against Korea. "Throw quality pitches, keep the score down and give the offense a chance to score. We scored a lot in the late innings, so when the starters keep it close late, we have better odds of winning those games."

Each of Team USA’s starters, working under pitch counts mandated by their major league organizations, featured big league fastballs. As Sheets found out in his first outing, though, he couldn’t go for strikeouts against the better teams and go deep into games.

"I looked it up after the first inning and I had thrown 26 pitches," he said of his first start, against Japan in the Olympic opener. "I knew if I wanted to go deep in the game, I had to stop trying to overpower everybody and get outs."

That shift in philosophy served Sheets best in the gold-medal game, when he completely shut down Cuba’s veteran lineup. In Atlanta in 1996, third baseman Omar Linares hit three home runs in the gold-medal game against Japan in Cuba’s 13-9 victory. Against Sheets, he managed two of his team’s three singles, but Olympics career RBI leader Orestes Kindelan went 0-for-3 while striking out twice, looking both times.

For the tournament, Sheets went 1-0, 0.41, giving up just 11 hits and one walk while striking out 11 in 22 innings. After pitching well in no-decisions against Japan and Italy—the tournament’s seventh-best team was the only one to score off him—he dominated Cuba, touching a Team USA-best 98 mph and hitting 96 with the 84th of his 103 pitches. Veteran catcher Pat Borders (Devil Rays) described Sheets as a righthanded David Wells.

Said U.S. second baseman Brent Abernathy (Devil Rays): "He just went after them with a lot of two-seam fastballs, and they kept on breaking their bats and hitting weak grounders to the left side. He let his defense do the work for him. To do what he did at his age against that lineup, to just shove it up their butt for nine innings, that’s unbelievable."

Rauch did much the same thing in the first meeting between the two teams, though he didn’t enter the game until Cuba had taken a 4-0 lead against Krivda. Rauch immediately displayed the form that resulted in 13 strikeouts and no walks in his dominant seven-inning start against South Africa in Team USA’s second game.

The difference was, the 2000 Minor League Player of the Year wasn’t facing a lineup in its first Olympics. He was facing Cuba, a team featuring 12 members of the ’96 gold-medal winners and five players who also won gold in ’92. Rauch gave up one run when veteran shortstop German Mesa hit a run-scoring triple to right field, but otherwise he was in complete control, striking out eight in just four innings. He was also in control emotionally during an emotionally charged game, choosing not to retaliate after the Cubans plunked Ernie Young (Cardinals).

"I didn’t do anything different. I just was out there throwing strikes," Rauch said. "It was nice to go out there and do well, but we’re all upset about the way the game was played and the fact we lost."

Rauch gave up six hits and one run in his 11 innings in the tournament, striking out 21 without issuing a walk. Ainsworth, who helped Team USA bounce back against Australia after the Cuba loss, went 2-0, 1.54 against the Aussies and the Netherlands, who went on to upset Cuba. Oswalt, faced with the daunting task of facing Korea twice, gave up two runs in 13 innings, walking three while striking out 10.

He kept it close so first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz (Twins) could win the Korea semifinal with a dramatic ninth-inning homer. That got Team USA to the gold-medal matchup it wanted with Cuba, with the pitcher it wanted on the mound in Sheets. Team USA manager Tom Lasorda said as soon as Team USA’s roster was assembled, he and pitching coach Phil Regan knew they wanted Sheets on the mound with the medal on the line, and Sheets didn’t disappoint.

"These guys are special," Lasorda said. "They all have great arms, and they’re all great kids. You may not know who they are now, but you’re going to hear about those guys for years to come in the major leagues."

If you don’t know who these guys are yet, you can identify them by the gold medals around their necks.

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