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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | BASEBALL

In Quest for Supremacy, Cubans Win First Round

Baseball: They're expected to play U.S. again in gold-medal game, but take first meeting, 10-8.

July 29, 1996|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — The game meant nothing, but Cuban Manager Jorge Fuentes knew there would be celebration in the streets of Havana on Sunday night.

It meant nothing, but Cuba's players pulled out their biggest bats and some classic gamesmanship, dallying on the mound and throwing at the American batters--or at least throwing enough inside to make them wonder.

It meant nothing, but 51,223 screamed and stomped in the ninth inning at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium while a small pocket of fans waved Cuban flags, an island in a sea of voices chanting "USA! USA!"

The suggestion that Cuba's dominance in international baseball has diminished was swatted out of the stadium in the first inning of Cuba's 10-8 preliminary-round victory over the United States--along with two of Billy Koch's pitches.

The second batter of the game, Luis Ulacia, hit a rising line drive over the left-field fence. The third, Omar Linares, deposited a pitch beyond the 402-foot sign in center field. Before the third out of the game, Cuba led, 4-0. After six innings, it was 10-2.

But before it was over, the Americans had hit five home runs of their own, and pulled within two runs in the ninth, sending the potential winning run to the plate.

Two home runs by American second baseman Warren Morris and solo homers by Chad Allen, UCLA's Troy Glaus and USC's Jacque Jones weren't enough to turn the tide.

With one out in the ninth, Jones homered to right, cutting the lead to two runs. The United States put runners on first and second before Pedro Luis Lazo struck out Allen and Glaus to end the game.

"We didn't give up," Jones said. "We came back. I knew we'd come back because this is the kind of team that can score four or five runs in an inning."

In the end, Cuba's undefeated streak in international tournament play remained intact, at 140.

"Baseball is our national sport, and Cuba, although it took plenty of work, has remained undefeated," Fuentes said. "I expect there will be a great party in Havana tonight."

The gold medals won't be awarded until Friday though, and Cuba and the United States are still on a collision course, virtually assured of finishing 1-2 after preliminary play. Cuba will be first, and the United States can clinch second by beating its final opponent, the Netherlands, a team that has won only once in five games.

Even with a U.S. loss, Nicaragua, the third-place team, would still have to beat Cuba to tie the Americans in the standings.

That means the U.S. and Cuba will not meet in the semifinals but figure to in the gold-medal game.

U.S. Coach Skip Bertman held back Sunday, saving his best pitchers, Kris Benson and Seth Greisinger, for the medal round. Fuentes did not, starting Omar Luis and following with his best relievers.

"This game has a little bit of politics to it," Bertman said. "A little bit of Americanism versus socialism, and there isn't much of that anymore in the Olympics."

Luis, Cuba's starting pitcher, plunked U.S. shortstop Jason Williams on the shoulder with the first pitch of the game, threw behind his head on a 0-2 count in his second at-bat, and hit him again his third time up.

Asked if Luis had been throwing at Williams, Fuentes said, "Absolutely not."

Luis, asked the same question, leaned forward to a microphone. "No," he said, then dissolved into giggles.

"Maybe the first pitch of the game they were trying to intimidate us," left fielder Mark Kotsay of Cal State Fullerton said. "We're going to stand in there. Maybe if they tried that against an Asian team, it might put fear in their minds, but not us."

The Americans, even a reporter or two, took their own shots.

"Can you tell us, what are your jobs in Cuba?" one asked the Cuban players, an allusion to their professionalism in an Olympic sport still ostensibly reserved for amateurs.

"They're very, very talented, a great team," Bertman said, carefully holding a steady gaze. "The best team in amateur baseball."

Fuentes, who conducts his interviews in Spanish, revealing a warm wit, was asked how Cuba would do if the U.S. used major leaguers.

"I think . . . that we would also have to have our own dream team to play your dream team," he said, cracking a knowing smile.

Despite the loss, Bertman said he feels good about his team's chance of winning the gold medal.

"I've always felt real good about winning one game, but I would not want to play them best of seven," he said. "They have older players, more experienced players, more talented players. Two years from now, most of our our guys will be in double-A, triple-A or the bigs. I don't think Cuba could compete then."

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