PHOENIX--Team USA made it to Havana with time for a Cuba libre or two.
With another payback victory in the CONCEBE Olympic qualifying tournament Wednesday, this one a 7-4 triumph over pesky Nicaragua in Maryvale Baseball Park, the United States took its first step toward returning to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
The U.S. has won its first three games, ensuring its advancement from a six-team, round-robin event that will send four teams to the Americas Olympic qualifier in Havana, Cuba, the last week of August, 2006.
"We always want to win every game we play, but obviously primarily we had to get to the next level, and we did that. We can go from there,” Team USA third baseman Brendan Harris (Nationals) said.
The U.S. is assured of finishing in the top four because Guatemala (0-3) has only two games remaining and either Mexico (1-2) or Nicaragua (1-2) will finish with three losses since they play each other in the final day of the tournament Saturday.
Harris' two-out, two-run home run in the sixth inning off veteran lefthander Asdrudes Flores gave the U.S. a 5-4 lead, and pinch-hitter Travis Hanson (Cardinals) added a two-run double in the eighth. Nicaragua had beaten the U.S. in World Cup play in the Netherlands two months ago.
"It happened pretty quickly,” Harris said of his home run. "The last thing I was trying to do was drive one out. The guy was going soft, soft and away, and I was really trying to drive something into the gap in right. He left it up and I put a pretty good swing on it and got it out.”
Harris' home run came on the first pitch he saw after Brad Snyder (Indians) just beat a throw to first base on what could have been an inning-ending double play. Ryan Shealy (Rockies), who walked to open the sixth inning, went in hard at second to make it a more difficult throw for shortstop Ofilio Castro (Nationals).
"He (Snyder) is pretty fast. He hit the big (hustle) double yesterday, and he legged this one out. The little things can turn out pretty big,” Harris said.
"Shealy made it hard on the, and Snyder busted his tail. It's been a long season, but they are really playing hard. I'm proud of them,” Team USA manager Davey Johnson said.
Harris and Howie Kendrick (Angels) are the only two U.S. players with hits in every game.
Team USA will play Panama (1-2) today. Canada, which also qualified for Havana by running its record to 3-0 with a victory over Panama on Wednesday, will play Mexico.
Brian Sanches (Royals) pitched 1 2-3 innings for the victory, with Jim Miller (Rockies) and Stephen Andrade (Blue Jays) threw an inning of perfect relief, Andrade striking out the side in the ninth for his first save.
The U.S. had a 1-0 lead two pitches into the last of the first inning off lefthander Asdrudes Flores, who pitched for Nicaragua’s 1996 Olympic team.
Shane Victorino (Phillies) singled to left on the first pitch, took second when the ball was bobbled for an error, and scored when Kendrick lined a first-pitch double down the left-field line. Kendrick stole third despite a pitchout and scored on a sacrifice fly to left by Billy Butler (Royals).
Lastings Milledge (Mets) hit a two-out home run high onto the berm in left-center for a 3-0 lead in the second.
Nicaragua scored without a hit in the third inning, after Brian Bass (Royals) walked Francisco Hernandez and Reymundo Leyton to open the inning. The runners moved up on a sacrifice and Hernandez scored on a groundout to shortstop. Nicaragua took a 4-3 lead in the top of the sixth on four singles, two off Bass and two more off Sanches, and a throwing error.
With runners on first and second and one out, Stanley Loasiga greeted Bass with a soft single in front of left fielder Milledge. One run scored on the single, and a second scored when Milledge's throw to third base went to the backstop. Loasiga made it to third and scored on Castro's single to left through a drawn-in infield.
Then came Harris, and Hanson, as lefthanded hitter who batted for righty Harris after a pitching change. Hanson hit his double after Nicaragua's second baseman failed to catch a foul popup down the right-field line, although no error was given on the play.
"I think that's the first time I've pinch-hit since '03, maybe not even then. It might have been the year before,” Hanson said. "Talk about an adrenaline rush, when they call your name and you get to swing. Holy cow.”
"I told them I'm going to use everybody. Late in the game, I'm going to try to move the matchup in our favor,” Johnson said.
"Even though these guys are not used to coming off the bench, they better get used to it, because they may be doing that in the big leagues.”
Canada 15, Panama 5
Canada’s Stubby Clapp went 5-for-5, including two triples and a double with three RBIs, while Jeremy Ware added a pair of doubles and scored four times as Canada stayed unbeaten with a 15-5 win over Panama. Ryan Radmanovich provided a solo shot in the fifth inning off Joel Ortega.
Canada’s Chris Begg (1-0) picked up the win, giving up eight hits in five innings.
Mexico 5, Guatemala 2
Mexico (1-2) earned their first win with a 5-2 triumph over Guatemala (0-3). Lefty Roberto Ramirez (1-0) tossed six innings and limited Guatemala to one run on four hits while recording eight strikeouts to notch the win. Juan Orellana hit a solo home run in the fifth for Guatemala’s first run of the tournament. He added a run-scoring double in the ninth.
Contributing: USA Baseball.