Cuba Pounds U.S. For Spot In Gold Medal Game

U.S. will face Japan for the bronze Friday night

They may be older than they've been in the past, and they don't have a wave of young pitching to replace their veteran stars. But on Friday, Cuba's national team showed once again that when it comes to Olympic baseball, it is still the team to beat.

Never was that more clear than Friday morning. With a spot in the gold medal game on the line, Cuba routed Team USA 10-2 in a game that was just as lopsided as the score indicates. Cuba had 14 hits and four home runs, while the U.S. had one extra-base hit.

"That was a tough one," manager Davey Johnson said. "We hung too many breaking balls and that was our downfall and we couldn't get anything going offensively. I thought Stephen (Strasburg) was throwing the ball exceptionally well, but he had 75 pitches after four (innings). He's got too good a future ahead of him. I didn't want him to go out there and labor at all in the fifth. We were in good position. We just didn't hold them. We made too many mistakes."

Cuba made no mistakes that mattered. Its stars are now a lot older, and there aren't nearly as many young stars nowadays as there were when Cuba won gold in 1992, 1996 or 2004.

Defections have taken away several stars such as White Sox righthander Jose Contreras and second baseman Alexei Ramirez, and Angels first baseman Kendry Morales. Cuba has struggled to develop a next wave of pitchers to equal the talents that debuted in the 1990s. There have been some signs of weakness in recent years—the U.S. beat Cuba in the Olympic qualifier, at the World Cup and at the Honkball Haarlem tournament just last month, as U.S. college players beat the same team that traveled to China.

Pedro Lazo
But even in their mid-30s, Pedro Lazo, Norge Vera and Adiel Palma are still three pitchers no team wants to face. On Friday, Vera held the U.S. to two runs (one earned) in six innings, while Lazo threw three scoreless innings to pick up the save. Palma, 14-0 in international play, will likely take the mound against South Korea, which beat Japan in the other semifinal, in the gold medal game.

South Korea will be facing a very tough task, as Cuba has dominated Olympic medal rounds. Cuba has played in five Olympics semifinal games. They're 5-0. Saturday morning's game will be their fifth gold medal game. They're 3-1 in the previous four, with the only loss coming to Ben Sheets and Team USA in 2000.

That remains the Americans' only gold medal since baseball became a medal sport. The U.S. will be looking to add its second bronze and third medal overall when it faces Japan Friday night at 10:30 p.m., though it will have to beat Japanese ace Yu Darvish to do it.

Cuba never trailed on Friday, but it nursed a narrow two-run lead until the eighth, when Alexei Bell and Ariel Pestano hit a pair of three-run home runs off of U.S. relievers Jeff Stevens and Blaine Neal.

It was an impressive power display by the Cubans. Solo home runs from left fielder Frederich Cepeda and DH Alfredo Despaigne had given Cuba a 4-2 lead, which was more than enough as Vera and Lazo dominated the U.S. lineup.

Matt Brown's ninth-inning double was the only extra-base hit the U.S. had all day. One of the two U.S. runs scored thanks in large part to a two-base error for Cuba.

"The hitters didn't show up today," second baseman Brian Barden said. "We put up two runs early and really didn't get anything going. As a hitter, I take the blame for how the game went along. Stephen (Strasburg) pitched a pretty solid game. The few mistakes that we had, you can't make those in these big games. You have to come out and pretty much be perfect and today we weren't."

Strasburg, the San Diego State rising junior, bounced between struggling and dominating during his four innings. Strasburg, the likely No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, allowed six hits and three runs (two earned), but he also struck out six batters, which helped him work out of jams in the first, second and third.

Fill-in Hector Ollivera drove in a run with an RBI triple and then scored on Brian Barden's throwing error, giving Cuba a 2-0 lead in the third inning. Matt Brown's sacrifice fly got the U.S. on the board in the fourth as he drove in Brian Barden.

Despaigne added to the lead with a two-out solo home run in the fourth.

In the fifth, Lou Marson reached on a two-base error by right fielder Alexei Bell, as Bell and second baseman Yuliesky Gourriel got confused on who was going to catch a pop up between them. Reading teammate Jason Donald then drove him in with a broken-bat single to center field, as Marson slid home just ahead of the throw.

After four innings from Strasburg, U.S. manager Davey Johnson turned to Twins prospect Brian Duensing. The lefty had been one of the most effective U.S. relievers during the Olympics, and he was effective again except for one pitch, which Cepeda crushed for a solo home run deep over the left field fence to extend Cuba's lead to 4-2 in the sixth.

Duensing and Mike Koplove kept the game close until the eighth, when Johnson turned to Stevens. Stevens and Neal were not nearly as effective, as the U.S. saw its gold medal hopes disappear.

The two pitchers expected to close for Team USA in Beijing had horrible tournaments. Rather than using young flamethrowers Casey Weathers or Kevin Jepsen against Cuba, Johnson used Stevens and Neal, with disastrous effects.

Neal gave up a three-run shot to Pestano, the second homer Neal has given up in 3.2 Olympic innings. That record doesn't include the bases-loaded, none-out jam Neal was in against the Netherlands when the rains came and wiped out that inning. Stevens, who had pitched very well for the Americans in Taiwan last November, took both American losses in the round robin, to Korea and Cuba, gave up Bell's three-run homer Friday and yielded seven runs (four earned) in four innings overall.

Bell's homer was his first of an amazing Olympic performance, as he's 15-for-29 (.517) with three doubles, four triples, a home run and nine RBIs.