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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Americans Rest Easy Following Opener

Baseball: Tired U.S. team sleepwalks past Nicaragua, 4-1.

July 21, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Some might say it was a problem if your star pitcher stayed out most of the night on the eve he was scheduled to pitch the most important game of his life.

At the Olympics, they call it part of the pageantry.

Most times heads would roll if the team bus arrived at the stadium less than an hour before the first pitch is supposed to be thrown.

Here, they call it ironing out the wrinkles.

Mickey Mantle might have been able to roll out of bed bleary-eyed and hit a two-run home run, but the United States baseball team won't want to push its luck again after sleepwalking past Nicaragua, 4-1, in a first-round game Saturday before an announced crowd of 40,458 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

The U.S. squad, which was expected to deafen ears and dent scoreboards with an aluminum-bat lineup that averaged 9.2 runs and 2.4 homers in 31 pre-Olympic tune-up games, managed only half a dozen hits against a team it had outscored in a four-game sweep earlier this summer, 47-11.

"Us winding up with six hits is very rare," U.S. Coach Skip Bertman said.

There were reasons for this. Nicaragua's starting lineup, noting the 10 a.m. starting time, decided to skip Friday night's opening ceremonies and get some bed rest.

The U.S. players would have none of this, particularly starting pitcher Kris Benson, the hometown hero--he played at Sprayberry High School in nearby Marietta--who had predicted to a friend six years ago he would be pitching in the Olympics after hearing that Atlanta had been picked to play host to the Games.

Benson said there was no way he was missing the opening ceremonies, especially after winning tickets for his parents this week in a lottery.

"I didn't want to miss it for the world," he said.

What Benson did miss was his shut-eye. Working on less than four hours' sleep and probably in need of a strong cup of Nicaraguan coffee, Benson awoke slowly, giving up a run on two hits in the first inning.

After wobbling again in the second--he escaped unscathed after allowing the first two runners aboard--Benson settled into the form that made him the No. 1 pick in the June draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, yielding only three hits over the next six innings.

All told, Benson gave up seven hits while striking out seven and walking two, impressive given his state of consciousness.

Braden Looper pitched a hitless ninth, striking out two, to clinch the victory for the United States.

"I've never gone an outing with four hours' sleep," Benson said. "I try to get nine or 10 hours."

Benson appeared fully wilted when he opened the seventh inning by throwing seven straight balls. But he still had some pop in the eighth, as his first pitch was clocked at 92 mph.

There was a question, though, whether Benson would ever get the two runs he needed to win. Listless U.S. bats were quieted by 35-year-old Nicaraguan starter Asdrudes Flores, a well-worn left-hander who held U.S. hitters scoreless through four innings.

In the fifth, the U.S. team finally woke up, scraping together two runs in efficient, if not impressive style.

After designated hitter Matt LeCroy opened with a single to right, Flores hit catcher A.J. Hinch with a pitch and then walked second baseman Warren Morris, loading the bases.

LeCroy scored on shortstop Jason Williams' sacrifice fly, and Hinch then scored when center fielder Jacque Jones grounded into a force play.

Not exactly the Bronx Bombers.

"We're not used to playing small ball, because we don't usually have to," Jones, the USC star, said. "This shows you how versatile the team is."

That was one explanation.

The U.S. team pieced together two more runs in the sixth. With the bases loaded, reliever Omar Obando hit Hinch with a pitch, forcing home Troy Glaus, who had walked and advanced to third on Chad Allen's double. Morris followed with a sacrifice fly that scored Allen.

Both teams could be forgiven for attention deficit.

The bus that was supposed to pick up the Nicaraguans at Georgia Tech after a morning practice was an hour late and made it to Fulton County Stadium at 8:50 a.m. The U.S. bus was even later, causing a half-hour delay in the starting time.

Bertman said he tried to prepare his team for the distractions.

"Is all that part of the Olympic experience?" Bertman said. "The answer is yes. We didn't intentionally get lost on our trips in the summer, but when we did, I said, 'Good, this is good experience.' "

Assuming the buses are on time, a well-rested U.S. team will play South Korea on Monday night while trying to stay focused until a showdown with Cuba, the gold-medal favorite, July 28. After round-robin play, the top four teams in the eight-team draw will advance to the medal round.

Bertman said he will use Benson and Seth Greisinger in six of the team's possible nine games, yet neither figures to get the start against Cuba, the gold-medal favorite. Bertman said Billy Koch probably would start against Cuba, saving Benson or Greisinger for a possible rematch in the medal round.

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