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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Japan Knocks U.S. Out of Contention With a Swing Shift

Baseball: Americans and Benson pounded in 11-2 defeat. Japanese will meet powerful Cuba for gold medal.

August 02, 1996|MIKE KUPPER | TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

ATLANTA — So the United States gets clobbered in baseball at the Olympics, 11-2.

That's a little surprising, but then Cuba is the power of the world in international ball and has been for years. . . .

What's that? Not Cuba? Japan?

Japan beat the United States, 11-2, on Thursday?

Japan hit five home runs? Japan got 15 hits?

No way!

Japan? Japan plays little ball. Japan bunts for base hits, moves the runner, squeezes runs home one at a time.

Apparently, somebody forgot to tell the Japanese. But someone must have told them this was a metal game. Not medal, metal, as in aluminum bats. For in this semifinal, Japan came out swinging and, for all practical purposes, had the game won by the fifth inning.

And that wasn't the only surprise. They crossed up the United States on their starting pitcher and the one they chose, right-hander Masanori Sugiura, might just as well have been Hideo Nomo, as far as U.S. hitters were concerned.

He shut out the Yanks for five innings. When he finally tired in the sixth, giving up a two-run homer to designated hitter Matt LeCroy, Takeo Kawamura came in and held the United States hitless the rest of the way.

What it all added up to was an appearance tonight for Japan in the gold-medal game against Cuba, which also played long ball and whomped Nicaragua, 8-1. The United States and Nicaragua will play for the bronze medal.

"Five homers and 15 hits and not a blooper among them," marveled U.S. Coach Skip Bertman of Japan's attack. "Then Sugiura pitched great for them and Kawamura gave them no-hit relief. Baseball is the greatest game in the world but the best team doesn't always win. And, frankly, I was worried about them. We've gone 70-10 over a two-year period and beaten Japan three times. It's pretty tough to beat them a fourth time.

"We pitched the best pitcher in America, at the amateur level. That was a tough one."

Tough, too, for Kris Benson of nearby Marietta, Clemson and, shortly, the Pittsburgh Pirates. He is the pitcher Bertman was alluding to, the one the Pirates made the No. 1 pick in the recent draft and the one Japan used for batting practice.

If his teammates were surprised to see Sugiura stride to the mound for Japan--"We thought they might go with [lefties Masao] Morinaka or [Hitoshi] Ono," Bertman said--Benson was equally surprised at the treatment he got.

Catcher Hideaki Okubo swatted a homer over the right-field wall leading off the second. Third baseman Makoto Imaoka launched a two-run shot to left three batters later and Benson was three runs behind.

"They stayed back and were patient," he said. "When I make a good pitch and someone hits it, I'm surprised. But they're a good hitting team.

"A loss is a loss but if I had a chance to turn in all 21 of the wins I had this year, for this one, I'd turn 'em in."

A counterattack, of course, can help a pitcher get past a poor start but that wasn't happening for Benson.

"We didn't even hit the ball well when we made out," Bertman said.

LeCroy's homer was the only shining moment for U.S. batsmen and even that was brief. Japan got those two runs back in the seventh and went on from there. Jacque Jones of USC and Travis Lee of San Diego State each had two of the six U.S. hits but Japanese pitching bamboozled the rest of the lineup and Mark Kotsay of Cal State Fullerton, one of the best hitters in college baseball, struck out four times.

So now it's Cuba for the Japanese.

"We've been practicing for 3 1/2 years to beat Cuba," Japanese Coach Katsuji Kawashima said. "We'll do everything we can do to beat them."

Cuba won its semifinal against Nicaragua, wiping out a 1-0 deficit with a three-run homer by designated hitter Orestes Kindelan in the fourth inning, then getting a second three-run shot by catcher Juan Manrique in the sixth.

"Those two balls are still traveling to the moon," said Darin Van Tassell, Nicaragua's American coach.

The first of the bombs was all Cuban Coach Jorge Fuentes needed, however. With left-hander Osmany Romero struggling in the sixth, Fuentes went right to his hard-throwing reliever, Omar Ajete, who checked the Nicaraguans the rest of the way.

"The two home runs turned the ballgame around and our pitching was overpowering for half the game," Fuentes said.

Right, Van Tassell said, pointing out that the Cubans had Ajete throwing in the bullpen as early as the first inning.

"They clearly rolled the dice today." he said. "But Ajete really shut us down. I was a little surprised he went as long as he did."

Asked if he thought Ajete would be able to come back today, Van Tassell said, "It's hard to come back from four innings but I expect he'll be ready. It is the gold-medal game."

Fuentes said, "We don't think he pitched too many pitches. We'll have to talk to him and see how he feels but I think he could pitch 40 pitches [today]."

Ajete agreed, saying happily, "I could pitch the necessary innings for winning the championship."

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