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Neill comes through in clutch again

By John Manuel

SYDNEY—As unlikely as it might sound, Mike Neill continues to build on his legend in international baseball.

Neill, a Mariners farmhand, had the game-winning single in the 10th inning of the semifinal against Mexico in the 1999 Pan American Games. The hit, the most significant in Team USA history, qualified Team USA for the 2000 Olympics.

In the United States' opener Sunday afternoon at Homebush Bay Baseball Stadium, Neill ended the longest Olympic game since baseball became a medal sport with a dramatic 13th-inning, game-winning home run, a towering two-run shot to right that gave Team USA a 4-2 victory against Japan.

Neill stood in the batter’s box and admired his homer for a second before rounding the bases and being mobbed by his teammates. He sounded almost embarrassed by his emotion over the homer, which gave Team USA a win in its first-ever Olympic extra-inning game, and its third victory in seven Olympic matchups with Japan.

"I wouldn’t say anything about it was normal," said Neill, 30, who hit the homer on a 3-2 pitch. "I got caught up in the moment. It was an unbelievable feeling, because I knew it was gone when I hit it. It was an intense game, and I’m glad it’s over with.

"Last year’s hit in the Pan Ams, there was more pressure, because if not for that we wouldn’t be here. But today was just an unbelievable atmosphere."

Neill’s homer came off Japan’s 19-year-old reliever Toshiya Sugiuchi, who had walked Brad Wilkerson (Expos) to lead off the inning. The long, grueling at-bat included a two-minute delay when Neill’s foul tip caught Japanese catcher Fumihiro Suzuki, and a smaller delay when Neill fouled a ball off his foot.

"After the wild pitch moved Wilkerson to second (a 1-2 pitch), I was looking for something inside I could pull to at least move him to third, and I was looking fastball," Neill said. "I got both."

The 13,404 fans that started the game in the Homebush stands were treated to a pitcher’s duel in the second Olympic game ever played with wood bats. (In a game that started an hour before Team USA’s tilt with Japan, Cuba pounded South Africa 16-0.) Japan righthander Daisuke Matsuzaka and American righthander Ben Sheets matched mid-90s fastballs and nasty breaking pitches, dominating the first seven innings. But one difference in how each nation views the Olympics almost helped decide the game.

Team USA lifted Sheets after seven scoreless innings because he, like all the hurlers on the staff, is on a pitch count. The Brewers’ 1999 first-round pick was brilliant, throwing 91 pitches and striking out three without a walk. But the Team USA bullpen and a defensive miscue cost him a win.

Team USA gave Sheets a lead in the seventh when DH John Cotton (Rockies) tripled to lead off the inning and scored on a single by third baseman Mike Kinkade (Orioles). Team USA got a second run when first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz (Twins) executed a hit-and-run, moving Kinkade to third, and Kinkade scored when Marcus Jensen (Twins) hit into a fielder’s choice.

Matsuzaka remained in the game, though, and Japan battled back for him. Left fielder So Taguchi tripled with one out off reliever Shane Heams (Tigers) and scored on a groundout.

In the ninth, the Japanese tied the game off Team USA closer Todd Williams (Mariners). Norihiro Nakamura, who hit 37 home runs this season for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, singled to lead off the inning. After a strikeout and a fly out to left, Williams gave up an infield hit to Jun Hirose on what amounted to a swinging bunt down the third-base line. Kinkade ate Hirose’s grounder, but when Jun Heima followed with an almost identical grounder, Kinkade came up throwing. His throw to first was errant, though, allowing the tying run to score.

"That deflated us a little," Cotton said. "The way their pitcher was pitching, we knew it would be tough to come back."

Matsuzaka stayed on the mound and ended up going 10 innings, throwing 139 pitches. While it was a far cry from the legendary 250-pitch outing he had while in high school, as Matsuzaka said, he was pleased with his effort. He was still hitting 93-94 mph on the stadium’s radar gun in the ninth inning at the 120-pitch mark.

"This was a big win for us considering they came back on us and their guy went 10 innings and did everything they could ask for," said Sheets, who battled back after a 28-pitch first inning. "We’re all on limited pitch counts, so after the first, I threw hard that inning, but I knew I needed quicker innings to stay in the game, so I stopped trying to strike everybody out."

Team USA reliever Ryan Franklin (Mariners) picked up the win in relief, and while he wasn’t as dominant as Sheets or Matsuzaka, he was just as effective. The 27-year-old pitched the last four innings for the Americans without giving up a hit, walking just one and striking out three. He got some help with fine running catches by center fielder Anthony Sanders (Mariners), his teammate at Triple-A Tacoma, and Wilkerson.

Team USA made three errors (two by Kinkade, one by shortstop Adam Everett of the Astros), but also turned in some outstanding glovework. Second baseman Brent Abernathy (Devil Rays) made three stellar plays, twice going to his right to make plays behind the bag, and perfectly executing a rundown in the top of the ninth to cut down the potential go-ahead run at third base.

"We’ve got a good ballclub," Team USA manager Tommy Lasorda said. "I think we have a pretty complete team, because we played great defense today, we showed we can pitch and have a good bullpen, and we have a little power. I said during our training camp in (Australia’s) Gold Coast, if I had this team for two years in the big leagues, we’d make it to the Fall Classic."

Lasorda needs to remember he’s already in a different kind of Fall Classic in these Summer Games, which got off to a classic start for Team USA thanks to Mike Neill.

Japan 2 (0-1)                        USA 4 (1-0)

                  AB  R  H RBI                         AB  R  H RBI

Taguchi lf         6  1  2  0        Abernathy 2b       6  0  2  0 
Iizuka cf          2  0  0  0        Wilkerson cf/rf    5  1  0  0 
Okihara ph/ss      3  0  0  1        Neill lf           4  1  2  2 
Matsunaka 1b       4  0  2  0        E. Young rf        4  0  1  0 
Akahoshi cf        2  0  0  0        Sanders cf         1  0  0  0 
Nakamura 3b        4  0  2  0        Cotton dh          5  1  1  0 
Nogami pr/2b       1  1  0  0        Kinkade 3b/1b      5  1  2  1 
Tanaka ss/1b       4  0  0  0        Mientkiewicz 1b    4  0  2  0 
Abe dh             4  0  0  0        Dawkins pr/ss      1  0  0  0 
Kajiyama rf        3  0  0  0        Jensen c           5  0  0  1 
Hirose ph/rf       2  0  1  0        Everett ss/3b      5  0  0  0 
Heima 2b/3b        5  0  0  0        Sheets p           0  0  0  0 
Suzuki c           5  0  0  0        Heams p            0  0  0  0 
Matsuzaka p        0  0  0  0        Seay p             0  0  0  0 
Sugiuchi p         0  0  0  0        Williams p         0  0  0  0 
                                     Franklin p         0  0  0  0 

Totals......      45  2  7  1        Totals......      45  4 10  4 

Score by innings:                           R  H  E
Japan                 000 000 011 000 0  -  2  7  1
USA                   000 000 200 000 2  -  4 10  3

Note: None out, 0 runner(s) LOB when the game ended.

E - Suzuki, Kinkade, Mientkiewicz, Everett. DP - USA 1. LOB - Japan 7, USA
8. 3B - Taguchi, Cotton(1). HR - Neill(1). SH - Iizuka, Abe. SB - Neill(1),
Dawkins(1). CS - Hirose. SO - Iizuka, Okihara, Akahoshi, Tanaka 2, Hirose, 
Heima, Suzuki, Cotton 2, Mientkiewicz, Dawkins, Jensen, Everett 2. 
BB - Tanaka, Wilkerson, Neill 2. 

                       IP  H  R ER BB SO  WP BK HP IBB  AB BF Fly Gnd

Matsuzaka            10.0  8  2  2  2  5   0  0  0  0   37 39  15  9
Sugiuchi L 0-1        2.0  2  2  2  1  2   1  0  0  0    8  9   2  2

Sheets                7.0  4  0  0  0  3   0  0  0  0   24 26   3 14
Heams                 0.1  1  1  1  0  0   0  0  0  0    2  2   1  0
Seay                  0.2  0  0  0  0  0   0  0  0  0    2  2   0  2
Williams              1.0  2  1  0  0  1   0  0  0  0    5  5   1  0
Franklin W 1-0        4.0  0  0  0  1  4   0  0  0  0   12 13   4  4

WP - Sugiuchi. 

Umpires - Home:Rosario  1st:Valdes  2nd:Leone  3rd:Castillo  
Start: 12:30 pm   Time: 3:33   Attendance: 13,404

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