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Cuba slips past Aussies; Korea tops Netherlands

By John Manuel

Team USA 4, Italy 2

Cuba 1, Australia 0

As a major league all-star, Australia catcher David Nilsson should be the best non-Cuban player in the Olympic baseball tournament. But even he couldn't beat the tournament's best pitcher.

Nilsson had two hits and a walk in four trips to the plate Friday afternoon at Homebush Baseball Stadium, keeping his tournament average to .500 in 18 at-bats. But the rest of his Australia team went 1-for-26 with 10 strikeouts against Cuba's ace righthander, Jose Contreras, in a 1-0 defeat.

The game was the shortest nine-inning game in Olympic history at 2:04. More significant, it clinched a spot in the medal round for Cuba (4-1).

Australia, tied with Korea and the Netherlands at 2-3 for fourth place, will have a difficult time grabbing the final medal-round berth. Australia must beat Italy Saturday and upset undefeated Team USA on Sunday, while also hoping that the Dutch lose to either South Africa or Italy, the tournament's two worst teams.

"After the defeat to the Netherlands, I knew this was an important game for us to win," said Contreras, who threw the Olympics' first complete-game shutout since Nicaragua's Asdrudes Flores beat the Netherlands 5-0 on July 25, 1996.

Contreras flashed the form that helped him dominate Team USA with 13 strikeouts in eight innings in the 1999 Pan American Games gold-medal contest. His fastball was consistently in the low 90s as he overmatched Nilsson's teammates.

"Contreras mixed it up well," Nilsson said. "He threw different fastballs, cutting and sinking. He had a good slider and a good splitter, and he threw hard. He pretty much dominated the game.

"As a hitter, yeah, you can be trying in the ninth to hit one out. But I also knew he wasn't going to give me anything I could hit out. I took a different approach and did what I wanted to do, which was get on base and give us a chance."

The rest of the lineup had no chance against Contreras. Though Nilsson singled in the ninth, right fielder Chris Snelling (Mariners) popped out and third baseman Paul Gonzalez struck out to end the game.

"He was wonderful," said Cuban left fielder Luis Ulacia, who has become the team's spokesman. "The more the tournament goes on, the better Contreras pitches."

The Cubans rebounded from Wednesday's loss to the Netherlands with a win as Ulacia, lifted for a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning against the Dutch, singled home Miguel Caldes in the third inning. That was all Cuba's struggling offense could get against righthander Shayne Bennett, who redeemed himself after a poor start against the Dutch in the Australia's opener. Bennett pitched 7 2/3 strong innings in defeat, giving up nine hits but not walking a batter and getting three double plays.

The Cubans have scored just three runs in their last two games but don't seem perturbed by it. A veteran of international competition, Ulacia sounded like he expected the team to turn it on when it must.

"We won 1-0, and winning is what is most important," Ulacia said. "All that is important is that we score one more run than our opponent. I'm not concerned about our offense. As long as the middle of the lineup hits well in the medal round, we will be fine."

The Aussies had one rally, if it can be called that. With two out in the fourth, Nilsson walked and moved to second on a single by left fielder Clayton Byrne. But Contreras struck out Gonzalez for the second time to end the inning. Gonzalez ended the day with 0-for-4 with four whiffs.

Korea 2, Netherlands 0

Korea kept its slim medal hopes alive with a 2-0 win against the upstart Dutch at Blacktown Ballpark, creating a three-way tie among itself, the Netherlands and Australia for the fourth spot in the medal round at 2-3 with two games remaining.

Korea will grab that berth if it can beat archrival Japan and creampuff South Africa, providing that Australia loses to either Italy or South Africa. The Netherlands have the easiest schedule remaining with games against Italy and South Africa, though the Dutch need Korea to lose a game.

If all three teams finish tied for the fourth spot, the tiebreaker becomes fewest runs allowed in the tournament. Through five games, Korea has given up 17, Australia 21 and the Netherlands 24.

Korean righthander Seok-Jin Park picked up the must-win with eight shutout innings against the Dutch, giving up just two hits and two walks while striking out seven. Righty Chang-Yong Lim finished up for the save.

The Netherlands lost some of the momentum it had gained with its shocking Wednesday upset of Cuba by giving up two first-inning runs, and the Dutch never recovered. Left fielder Byung-Kyu Lee—described by one scout here as a Korean Devon White and rated as an 8 runner on the 2-to-8 scouting scale—legged out a double off lefthander Jurriaan Lobbezzoo to lead off the game. He scored on Jong-Ho Park's single. Jae-Hong Park hit into a force play, moved up on a hit by Dong-Joo Kim and scored on Ki-Tai Kim's single.

First baseman Percy Isenia and shortstop Robert Eenhoorn had the only hits for the Netherlands.

Japan 8, South Africa 0

In the third shutout of the day, Japan (4-1) dominated South Africa 8-0 at Blacktown Ballpark.

Five Japanese pitchers gave up just three hits and struck out 10 against the overmatched South Africans (0-5), who have been outscored 58-5 at the Olympics. Two Japanese major leaguers, third baseman Norihiro Nakamura and first baseman Yukio Tanaka, hit home runs as their club pounded out 14 hits. Tanaka had three hits and three RBIs to lead all players.

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