Cuba, U.S. Face Off For Pan Am Gold

Team USA left home soil nearly 10 days ago, licking its wounds after losing its annual series against Japan’s college all-stars. Scouts criticized the team as too one-dimensional, lacking in power arms, too lefthanded.

Now, the college national team has regrouped at the 2007 Pan American Games in Brazil and with one more victory–against its biggest, baddest foe, Cuba–can do something no American team has done in 40 years.

Team USA plays Cuba in the gold-medal final Friday morning in Rio de Janeiro, trying to claim Pan Am gold for the first time since 1967. The game (with an 8 a.m. Eastern Time start) originally was scheduled for Thursday but was delayed a day by rain, which is just one of many factors that have plagued the tournament.

The U.S. won a doubleheader Wednesday to advance to the championship round, beating host Brazil 7-5 and then edging past Mexico 2-1. Righthander Cody Satterwhite (Mississippi) saved both ends of the doubleheader as the Americans moved to 4-0 in the event, with earlier victories against the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.

The U.S. has won one gold and eight silver medals at the Pan Am Games since 1951, including silver in 2003 when Jered Weaver was outdueled by Norge Vera in a 3-1 Cuban victory. That was the last time a U.S. college team played Cuba; last year’s FISU World Championships were held in Cuba and Team USA won the gold without having to play the host nation.

The U.S. won the last high-level game against Cuba, though. Using professionals such as Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Kevin Slowey and Michael Bourn, Team USA beat Cuba 8-5 in Havana last August to win the Olympic qualifying tournament.

While the Japan series always is a highlight for the college national team, playing Cuba trumps it thanks to politics and good old-fashioned competition. Cuba has won every Pan Am gold since 1967, nine straight in all, and because Cuba and the U.S. stopped playing regular series during the summer back in 1997, tournaments like these are the only forums for the U.S. and Cuba to face each other.

“Our goal for the summer was to play for a goal medal, and that’™s where we are at,” Team USA head coach Mike Weathers (Long Beach State) said in a press release. “To win a doubleheader in international play is very difficult, and I’™m proud of our guys and the obstacles they had to face. We will be ready to go.”

Players from the Southeastern Conference have led the way for Team USA. While first baseman Justin Smoak (South Carolina) and third baseman Pedro Alvarez (Vanderbilt) provide the punch in the middle of the order–they’ve combined for five of the team’s 12 home runs–they’re not the only SEC players making noise.

Satterwhite got four outs for two saves, getting a game-ending lineout against Mexico to preserve a victory for lefthander Brian Matusz (San Diego). Logan Forsythe (Arkansas) continued his hot streak and has multi-hit games in all four Pan Am contests, going 5-for-7 with three RBIs–including the game-winner against Mexico–on the day. Forsythe’s .377 average leads the team.

Because of poor lighting, Team USA has played all of its games during the day. Weathers scheduled a tuneup game at 10 a.m. one morning against Taiwan in June, and while the Americans lost that game, they seem to have learned the lesson of how to play well early in the day. But playing well may not be enough against Cuba, whose roster features familiar names such as star second baseman Yulieski Gourriel and hard-throwing newcomer Ardolis Chapman.

“The chance to win a gold over a powerhouse club is awesome, a bunch of experienced,
battle-tested guys against us college guys,” Satterwhite said.

Team USA will likely turn to righthander Jacob Thompson (Virginia) in the gold-medal game. Thompson, a first-team All-American this spring, has yet to allow an earned run in 17 innings over his first four starts this summer, and he has not pitched in Rio, so he should be fresh.

The game will air on tape delay Friday at 3:50 p.m. ET on ESPN Deportes.