Team USA Romps In Opener




PHOENIX--Team USA began a week of atonement with a bang Tuesday.

The United States used home runs by Brad Snyder (Indians), Bryan LaHair (Mariners) and Brandon Wood (Angels) and five shutout innings by Chris Lambert (Cardinals) for a 23-0 victory over Guatemala in the first day of the CONCEBE regional Olympic qualifying tournament.

It was Team USA's first appearance in Olympics-related play since being upset in the qualifying tournament in Panama in 2003, a defeat that denied the U.S. a chance to defend its 2000 gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

"This is the first step to Beijing (and the 2008 Olympics). Every step is important,'' said LaHair, who had a brekaout year with 22 homers and 113 RBIs at high Class A Inland Empire this season and who played for Team USA in the World Cup in September on a team that finished seventh. "This is our sport. We're on a mission to get back to the Olympics put the U.S. back on the map.''

Snyder hit two-run homer in the first inning, LaHair added a homer and two singles, and Angels farmhands Howie Kendrick and Jeff Mathis had three RBIs each in a game that was stopped after seven innings because of the international 10-run rule.

Panama and Canada also won their first games in the six-team, round-robin tournament in the Phoenix area through Saturday. The top four teams will advance to the Americas Olympic qualifying regional in Havana, Cuba, that begins in the last week of August in 2006.

The U.S. is to start Jered Weaver today against Mexico, the team that eliminated the U.S. in Panama in 2003 with a 2-1 victory behind Rigo Beltran, who pitched seven three-hit innings. Beltran is expected to start for Mexico.

"No question about it,'' Team USA manager Davey Johnson said when asked if the Mexico game had special significance. "They knocked us out of the Olympics, so we'd like to get back at them.''

Lambert gave up only one hit, a looping wind-blown single into short right field by Jorge Gutierrez with one out in the second inning. Lambert struck out nine, seven in the first three innings and five in a row after Gutierrez's single, the only hit by Guatemala. Lambert threw 72 pitches, 47 strikes, before Nick Ungs (Marlins) retired all six batters he faced.

"I was able to throw my fastball for strikes and get ahead, which is what I was trying to do. Everyhing just came together. I was in a rhythm,'' Lambert said. "We came out here with something to prove.''

Ryan Shealy (Rockies) had four of the U.S.'s 26 hits while Snyder, LaHair, Kendrick and Mathis had three hits apiece. Kendrick had two singles in a six-run fourth, and Wood's 58th homer of the season--43 at high Class A Rancho Cucamonga, a league-record 14 in the Arizona Fall League--came in an eight-run seventh.

The U.S, had a 3-0 lead six pitches into the game--leadoff man Shane Victorino (Phillies) was grazed by an inside pitch on a 1-1 count before Kendrick tripled into right-center on a 1-0 pitch and Snyder followed by hitting the first pitch he saw over the fence in center field.

"We definitely wanted to jump on them early and set the tone,'' Snyder said. "Baseball is a funny game. Anything can happen.''

OTHER GAMES

Canada 3, Nicaragua 0

Adam Loewen struggled too badly in 2004 to make the Canadian Olympic team. He made his first contribution to helping Canada qualfy again in 2008 with a stellar performance against Nicaragua. Loewen went 6 2/3 innings in a combined two-hitter, retiring 15 batters in a row at one time to out-duel former big leaguer Oswaldo Mairena. The veteran lefty had beaten Team USA in the World Cup in September and is Nicaragua’s ace.

Canada got three hits apiece from former big leaguer Kevin Nicholson and Joey Votto (Reds), and Nicholson homered. Dodgers farmhand Russ Martin, batting third for Canada, went 0-for-4.

Panama 17, Mexico 4

Panama put together a 19-hit attack, including seven doubles, for the victory. Pirates farmhand Avelino Asprilla led off and had two hits, two RBIs and three runs to help lead the Panamanian offense. Jaime Jaen also had three hits and a game-high four RBIs.

-- John Manuel