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Netherlands stuns Cuba in historic upset

By John Manuel

Norge Vera
Norge Vera

SYDNEY—Nobody thought it could happen. Not against the Netherlands, anyway. But the impossible, the unthinkable, has happened.

In the biggest upset in Olympic baseball history, the Netherlands (2-2) defeated two-time gold-medal champion Cuba 4-2 Wednesday at Homebush Baseball Stadium, handing the Cubans (3-1) their first defeat ever in 22 Olympic games.

"I can't begin to describe what this means to Dutch baseball," said Netherlands shortstop Robert Eenhoorn, the former big leaguer who is 0-for-14 at the plate in the tournament but who played a key role in the win with his defense. "We didn't get a lot of respect from anybody coming into this tournament. To me, this is one of my best experiences in baseball, right up there with playing in Yankee Stadium for the Yankees and with being on the field for Doc Gooden's no-hitter."

The Dutch won behind eight quality innings by Oregon native and former Giants farmhand Ken Brauckmiller, a righthander who scattered seven hits and three walks while striking out just two. The Dutch got all the runs Brauckmiller needed in the third inning against Cuban righthander Norge Vera, who was the MVP of Cuba's Serie Nacional last winter while going 17-2, 0.97.

Dirk van t'Klooster walked to lead off the inning, and team captain Johnny Balentina singled to follow. The Netherlands then loaded the bases when Cuba's star third baseman, Omar Linares, mishandled E.J. t'Hoen's sacrifice bunt. Rikkert Faneyte hit into a force play to keep the bases loaded before second baseman Ralph Milliard (Padres) singled in a run to tie the game 1-1. Former Yankee Hensley "Bam Bam" Meulens batted next, and Cuba relieved Vera with flamethrowing 20-year-old Maels Rodriguez, whose fastball touched 99 mph on the stadium radar gun. Meulens drilled an 89-mph slider for a three-run double that turned out to be enough to win.

"That's probably the biggest hit of my career," said Meulens, who spent part of this season in Korea before finishing the year in the Mexican League. "To have done this against Cuba is great satisfaction. We did this for all the Dutch people around the world.

"Most of the teams have been throwing me a lot of breaking balls, and I've seen so many I've adjusted to it. When somebody throws as hard as Rodriguez, though, you have to look fastball and adjust. His slider was hard enough I didn't have to adjust too much."

Cuba never adjusted to Brauckmiller, who yielded a solo home run to Linares in the first, then pitched seven scoreless innings before leaving the game with two runners on and none out in the ninth inning.

Dutch coach Pat Murphy came to the mound—"I can't repeat what I told Pat when he came to take me out," Brauckmiller said—and replaced his starter with Faneyte, the former big league outfielder who pitches in the Dutch domestic league.

Faneyte induced three straight groundballs from pinch-hitters Gabrielle Pierre and Javier Mendez and center fielder Yobal Duenas, the 1998-99 Cuban batting champion and regarded with Linares as the team's top hitter. Faneyte is now 2-for-2 in save opportunities in Australia, having also closed the Netherlands'4-3 win in exhibition play against Team USA.

"Rikkert's got ice water in his veins, he's just a strike thrower, so we knew he could do it," Murphy said. "This is really, really special. I'm really proud of this team and the way they believed. That's the first thing you have to do, and I told the guys before the game, 'You better start believing.'

"For Rikkert and Robert, I'm just so happy for them after all they've meant to Dutch baseball, to get a win like this late in their careers, I'm just really happy."

Cuba's invincibility has been pierced slightly in recent years as the team lost to Japan and Australia, respectively, in the championship games of the 1997 and 1999 Intercontinental Cups, and also suffered round-robin defeats to the United States and Canada at the '99 Pan American Games to Team USA and Canada. But nothing prepared the world for a Cuban upset, not even their close-call, come-from-behind 6-5 win against Korea the night before.

"We're not that worried," Cuban outfielder Luis Ulacia said through a translator after the upset. "We need to play better in our next few games so we won't repeat this loss. That goes to show that if the other team plays well, it can do the job better. We'll play hard and play better, but it's possible we could qualify for the medal round in fourth place. That's not embarrassing."

Added second baseman Antonio Pacheco, a two-time Olympian: "We're not ashamed to lose to them. They're in the Olympics, aren't they?"

Now more than ever.

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