American Dream

See also: U.S., Cuba Earn Berths In Olympics

It’s been a bad year for American sports on the international stage.

In the World Baseball Classic, the U.S. didn’t even make it out of the second round. Germany topped the U.S. in medals at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy, and the American basketball team–chock full of NBA stars–once again failed to impress on the international stage, losing to Greece and settling for a bronze medal in the world championships in Japan. The U.S. was also  humbled (eighth place) in the Olympic hockey tournament and the soccer World Cup (no wins, first-round exit).

But this summer, USA Baseball has held up its end of the bargain. In a big, big way.

Its professional team became the fourth USA Baseball club to win a tournament and the second straight club to win an event in Cuba, as Team USA beat the host Cubans 8-5 Tuesday in front of about 45,000 fans at Havana’s Stadio Latinamericano. Both teams already had qualified for the 2008 Games in Beijing, but the Americans’ victory was the first by a U.S. pro team against Cuba since Ben Sheets shut down the Cubans to win gold in Sydney in 2000.

Team USA broke through to win in the eighth inning against feared Cuban closer Pedro Luis Lazo, who hadn’t pitched in a week. Shortstop Brandon Wood (Angels), the top prospect on the team, had suffered through a difficult tournament, getting off to a 1-for-21 start, but he saved his best for last. After failing to get two bunt attempts down in the top of the eighth inning while facing Lazo, Wood crushed an 0-2 pitch for a two-run, tiebreaking homer and a 7-5 lead. Pinch-hitter Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Braves) added a solo shot off Lazo in the ninth for the final margin.

The victory pushed Team USA to 8-1 in the tournament, its only loss a 12-9, extra-innings loss to Venezuela after the Americans already had clinched a spot in the second round. Cuba (8-1), which was using a roster very similar to the one that finished second in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in March, took its first loss of the event.

It’s been a tough summer for Cuba (what with the illness of Fidel Castro, baseball losses and a glancing blow by Hurricane Ernesto), and a great one for the U.S. baseball internationally. USA Baseball teams also won the Women’s World Cup, the World Youth championship (16-and-under) last month in Venezuela and the FISU World University championship (college players, 27-and-under) last month in Cuba. That was the first time an American college team had won a tournament in Cuba.

This is just the second victory by a U.S. pro team against Cuba, and it came against a red-hot team. Cuba had outscored its opponents 87-11 in the first eight games of the event and had essentially its entire pitching staff rested and ready after giving up one run in three previous second-round games.

But after giving up just two home runs the rest of the tournament, Cuban pitchers surrendered five Tuesday. More significantly perhaps, Team USA showed impressive resiliency, relentlessly pressing the Cubans despite repeated Cuban attempts to rebuff them.

For example, Team USA chased veteran lefthander Adiel Palma in the first inning after leadoff singles by Skip Schumaker (Cardinals) and Bobby Hill (Padres) and a hit-by-pitch of Mike Kinkade (Marlins). But reliever Yuniesky Maya escaped the jam without giving up a run, as Billy Butler (Royals), Chad Allen (Royals) and Mark Reynolds (Diamondbacks) came up empty.

But the U.S. kept coming back for more. Hill opened the scoring with a solo homer in the third inning off Maya, and with two outs in the fourth inning, Michael Bourn (Phillies) got to Maya for a solo shot of his own. Team USA got two more runs in the fourth to make it 4-0, as Schumaker and Hill (who had singled and walked) scored on a two-out, two-run double by Kinkade.

Righthander Kevin Slowey (Twins) kept the score that way through four innings and finally gave up a run in the fifth on an RBI triple by Michel Enriquez, but it was the only run he gave up in five quality innings, walking and striking out one. He left with a 5-1 lead after Bourn–who had five home runs in 470 at-bats this season between Double-A and Triple-A–connected for his second homer of the game in the sixth. The blast came off Lazo, who had entered the game opening the fifth inning.

However, as was the case in Team USA’s lone loss to Venezuela, the bullpen faltered. Reliever J. Brent Cox (Yankees) gave up two in the bottom of the sixth and two more in the seventh (reliever Jeff Ridgway of the Devil Rays gave up the inherited runners) as Cuba tied the game, but reliever Lee Gronkiewicz (Blue Jays) got out of the seventh-inning jam.

That set the stage for Wood’s heroics and made a winner of Gronkiewicz, who worked in five of Team USA’s nine games. Closer Henry Owens (Mets) was the other workhorse of the staff and got his third save in his sixth appearance, striking out one. American pitchers posted a solid 73-23 strikeout-walk ratio for the tournament in 82 innings, giving up 11 homers while the offense slugged 19.

Hill went 2-for-2 with his homer as he finished an outstanding tournament, batting an event-best .522 with 10 walks to boot in seven games. Catcher Kurt Suzuki (Athletics) hit .455 for the Americans, and Schumaker batted .405 while scoreing 15 runs in nine games. Reynolds, despite playing in just six of the nine contests, led the U.S. (and tied for the event lead) with four homers after hitting 31 in the regular season.

Lazo got the loss as he struck out seven in five innings (Maya fanned six as the Americans struck out 13 times), and Cuba was unable to weather below-par outings by several stars. Shortstop Eduardo Paret went just 1-for-5 in the leadoff spot, while star second baseman Yulieski Gourriel went 0-for-5. Osmani Urrutia, winner of multiple batting championships in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, went 1-for-5.

Rest Of The Story

While the event was a qualifier for the Olympics, it also was a qualifier for the next World Cup, scheduled for 2007 in Taiwan. The top two teams earned berths in Beijing; the third- and fourth-place teams earned spots in the second-chance Olympic qualifier next year at in Taiwan; and the top six teams qualified for the World Cup.

Mexico, a late entry in the field, and Canada kept their Olympic hopes alive by finishing third and fourth. Mexico, whose only losses were to the U.S. and Cuba, beat Panama 10-7 Tuesday as it mashed out five home runs, two by Mexican League star Jorge Vazquez. While Mexico hit just .248 in the tournament, Vazquez and Carlos Valencia each mashed four of the team’s 15 homers, and Mexico posted a fine 3.71 ERA.

Canada finished fourth with a 3-1 victory against Nicaragua. Veteran righthander Chris Begg (Giants) earned some measure of redemption for past international struggles (he blew a lead against Cuba in the semifinals of the 2004 Olympics) with his second straight strong start, striking out five while giving up one run in 6 1/3 innings. he needed just 64 pitches. He went 2-0, 1.35 on a team that posted a 4.85 ERA overall.

Once again Canada’s offense came from its younger players, as Mike Saunders (Mariners) went 2-for-4 with two RBIs to pace the offense. After years of relying on veterans such as Stubby Clapp and Ryan Radmanovich, Canada may have found new stalwards in Saunders (who hit a team-best .448) and Emerson Frostad (Rangers; .421), their two top hitters in the event.

Venezuela finished fifth and sixth to qualify for the ’07 World Cup, as Venezuela knocked off Nicaragua on Monday and the Dominican Republic on Tuesday to go 3-4 in games that count toward the standings and 4-5 overall. Former Marlins farmhand Jose Aponte hit four homers to pace Venezuela’s offense. Panama finished sixth, going winless in the second round after an impressive 4-1 run through Group A. Nicaragua qualified for the 2007 Pan American Games in Brazil by finishing seventh.