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Sept. 17
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Japan holds off upset-minded Aussies

By John Manuel

Team USA 6, The Netherlands 2

Japan 7, Australia 3

Host Australia (1-2) saw its upset bid go by the boards, squandering a 3-1 lead in a 7-3 defeat to medal favorite Japan (2-1) in front of the biggest crowd of the Olympic competition this year, 13,903. Righthander Tomohiro Kuroki, who pitches for the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan’s major leagues, shut down the Aussies at Homebush Baseball Stadium after giving up a three-run homer to 1999 big league all-star David Nilsson.

Japan moved to 2-1, having rebounded nicely with wins against The Netherlands and Australia after losing to Team USA on Sunday.

Australia entered the tournament touted as having one of the best staffs in the Olympics, but none of its starters have performed well, and the Aussies clearly miss Dodgers righthander Luke Prokopec, who got his first big league win on Sunday. In a loss to The Netherlands, former big league righthander Shayne Bennett (Expos) didn’t make it through the fifth inning and got the loss, and lefthander Brad Thomas (Twins) didn’t make it out of the fourth in a win against Korea.

Tuesday it was another former big league righthander, Mark Hutton (Astros), who labored through five innings for Australia, giving up three runs. Reliever Mark Ettles, another former big league righty, couldn’t hold the tie as Japan got four runs in the sixth. Catcher Fumihiro Suzuki had the go-ahead hit, an RBI single, which was followed by a three-run homer to left by leadoff-hitting shortstop Yoshinori Okihara.

The entire Japan bullpen sprinted in from their station behind the right-field wall to greet Okihara after he crossed the plate. And looking a lot like an American player, Okihara greeted each of his celebrating teammates by tapping closed fists. Okihara led all hitters with four hits, including a double to go with his homer, and four RBIs. Left fielder So Taguchi, moved from the leadoff spot to the No. 3 hole, went 2-for-4 with two RBIs.

Australia manager Jon Deeble tried to explain his team’s pitching woes, defending a gutsy effort by Hutton and pointing out the loss of depth on his staff after losing the likes of Prokopec, lefthanders Adrian Burnside and Jeff Williams (both Dodgers) and righthander John Stephens (Orioles).

"A lot of times you don’t realize, the last three or four years in the States, he has relieved almost exclusively," Deeble said. "We lost a couple of guys from the rotation, but to his credit he stepped forward and really competed for us. He gave us a chance to win. He has only been throwing 30-40 pitches max in the States, and in a span of two weeks here we’ve gotten him up to 90."

Nilsson continued his fine Olympic performance despite Australia’s 1-2 start. Nilsson’s homer gave him five RBIs in the three games, and he’s hitting .500 (6-for-12) overall for the tournament. But the rest of the lineup was powerless against Kuroki, who worked from the stretch the entire game. Kuroki gave up the three runs in eight innings, giving up just five hits while walking three and striking out nine.

Nilsson had a great at-bat in the bottom of the eighth against Kuroki, fouling off four two-strike pitches before lashing a double to the gap in right-center. But no one was on base ahead of him, and third baseman Paul Gonzalez couldn’t deliver behind him, becoming Kuroki’s final strikeout victim.

Lefthander Masanori Ishikawa finished up for Japan, giving up one hit.

Australia bids to even its record at 2-2 Wednesday when it plays tournament doormat South Africa at Blacktown Ballpark.

"We can’t take anyone lightly right now," said Deeble, whose club plays Cuba on Friday. "We’re confident we can win that one and against Italy, but we have to keep winning."

Japan looks poised to run to 4-1, facing Italy and South Africa in its next two games at Blacktown. Japan then can pitch ace righthander Daisuke Matsuzaka Sept. 23 against Korea and have him ready to pitch the gold-medal or bronze-medal game on Sept. 27. The Japanese face Cuba in the last game of the round robin, a game neither team hopes it has to win to make the medal round.

Cuba 6, Korea 5

Pedro Luis Lazo struck out Korean hitting hero Park Jae-Hung on a full count in the bottom of the ninth, preserving Cuba’s come-from-behind 6-5 win.

Cuba is now 3-0 in the Olympic tournament, joining the United States as the only undefeated teams. Korea fell to 1-2.

After trailing 4-0, Cuba rallied for a 5-4 lead, then broke a 5-5 tie in the eighth on a solo home run by catcher Juan Manrique off righthander Son Min-Han.

Korea took a 2-0 lead against Cuban ace righthander Jose Contreras in the first inning. Contreras gave up three runs (two earned) and four hits in two innings, walking one, striking out two and hitting a batter. Korea stretched the lead to 4-0 through five innings as Park went 3-for-5 with a home run and three RBIs. Korean leadoff man Lee Byung-Kyu also had a big day, going 3-for-5 with one RBI and two runs.

After the Cubans had rallied with five runs in the sixth, Korea tied the game on Park’s solo homer off Lazo, who got the win by pitching the last 3 1/3 innings for Cuba. He struck out three while giving up one run and three hits.

Korean starter Kim Soo-Kyung got off to a fast start before tiring in the sixth. He pitched five innings, walking five and striking out five while giving up three runs.

Cuba’s five-run sixth started when its veteran No. 3 and No. 4 hitters, third baseman Omar Linares and Orestes Kindelan, walked to lead off the inning. Second baseman Antonio Pacheco doubled to score both runners, then scored on Oscar Macias’ double, making it 4-3. Kim was relieved by Seok-Jin Park, who gave up a single to right fielder Miguel Caldes to put runners on the corners. Then with two outs and runners at second and third, center fielder Yobal Duenas slapped a two-run single to give Cuba the lead.

Italy 13, South Africa 0

The two least likely medal contenders saved their best pitchers for their Tuesday matchup. Italy (1-2), behind former independent league righthander Jason Simontacchi, got to the better of it in a seven-inning, 13-0 win against South Africa (0-3).

Simontacchi, meanwhile, pitched six strong innings, giving up one walk and six hits while striking out seven. He probably will pitch again Sept. 24 in Italy’s final round-robin game against European rival The Netherlands.

The Italians got their first victory of the tournament by drawing eight walks and bashing 10 hits at Blacktown Ballpark, including home runs by DH Franceso Casolari and second baseman Alberto D’auria. They did it against South Africa’s top pitcher, righthander Tim Harrell (Dodgers), who walked four and gave up six runs in 3 1/3 innings.

Former Mariners farmhand Claudio Liverziani, playing right field, drew three walks, stole a base and scored twice to help set the table for Italy, and former University of North Carolina and independent league catcher Chris Madonna drove in three runs with a single and sacrifice fly. Former American minor leaguer David Sheldon, the Italian third baseman, went 2-for-4 with a double and two RBIs.

South Africa plays all but one of its games at Blacktown. Its best chance for victory now, albeit a longshot, will be against The Netherlands on Sept. 23.

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