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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | BASEBALL

Unbeaten Americans at the Mercy of Lasorda

Baseball: He's talking a good game as U.S. routs South Africa, 11-1.

September 19, 2000|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

BLACKTOWN, Australia — Tom Lasorda and his gang of minor league ragamuffins won another Olympic baseball game here Monday night, and if you don't think Lasorda is loving every minute of this, think again.

He is four days shy of his 73rd birthday, but he is a manager again. He is in a uniform. In the dugout. Managing. Motivating. Inspiring. Shooting the breeze. Shooting the bull. Talking it up to anybody who will listen, and who would dare not to?

Before Lasorda's U.S. team took the field against South Africa, he gathered a small group of his players around him in the clubhouse and gave them his best one-two punch: part Knute Rockne and part Jesse Jackson. First, there was the inspiration of the Bulldog (Orel Hershiser). Then the need to believe in themselves and the assurance that they were so damned good that they'd all be in the majors in a year or so.

BUT ONLY IF THEY BELIEVED IN THEMSELVES!

It might as well have been halftime of Michigan-Ohio State, or Patton sending out the troops. It was fire and brimstone, echoing off the walls and into the ears of a bunch of wide-eyed young players who had heard about this before, but didn't quite know what to make of it.

The only question they must have had was what would he be like when they played a real team, which was not the case on this warm and peaceful night at the Blacktown Olympic Center.

The U.S. won, 11-1, in a game that was stopped after South Africa batted in the top of the seventh inning of a scheduled nine-inning game because of the 10-run mercy rule.

The stars for the U.S. were right-handed pitcher Jon Rauch, by most accounts the tallest pitcher in organized baseball at 6 feet 11, and outfielder John Cotton, who holds the distinction of playing in more minor league games, about 1,200 at last count, without making the majors.

Rauch, a 21-year-old Chicago White Sox prospect recently named minor league player of the year by Baseball America, gave up three hits and struck out 13--one shy of the U.S. Olympic record. He even fanned four batters in one inning, after one of his third strikes got away from catcher Pat Borders and the batter beat the throw to first.

Cotton, a 30-year-old power hitter currently in the Colorado Rockies' system, drove in five runs with a base-clearing double in the first and a two-run single in the second. That set a team Olympic record.

Lasorda, gushing about all, sang the praises of Rauch and left fielder Mike Neill loudest of all.

"The last 10-12 breaking balls Rauch threw tonight were big league pitches," Lasorda said. "He's got the velocity, he's got the pitches. He just needs to keep learning how to pitch."

Rauch, an inch taller than Randy Johnson but occasionally compared to the Arizona Diamondbacks' star at a similar stage of development, spent most of last season at double A.

"And this Neill, the kid that hit the homer [Sunday] to beat Japan," Lasorda said, "well, I'm gonna tell you right now, he's gonna help some major league team real soon."

Neill, 30, who is in the Seattle Mariner system, hit his second homer in as many days with a long drive in the sixth. The U.S. Olympic team homer record is five.

South Africa, probably the weakest team in the eight-team tournament, got its first Olympic hit (by former Dodger Ian Holness) and its first Olympic run (RBI single by Nick Dempsey). Cuba had used three pitchers to no-hit South Africa on Sunday.

The difficulty of South African Manager Raymond Tew's task in this Olympic event was magnified in the fourth inning, when he took out battered right-handed pitcher Liall Mauritz. Scheduled up next in the U.S. lineup were four left-handed hitters, and yet Tew brought in Ashley Dove, a right-hander.

A check of the lineup card revealed that Tew had little choice, because he had only one left-handed-throwing player on his entire roster. Afterward, he shed more light on that.

"My only lefty isn't even here for three more days," he said. "He cut up his hand last week on the Gold Coast in one of our practice games."

Sean Burroughs, the star of the Long Beach Little League World Series teams in the early '90s, made his Olympic debut, going in at third base in the third inning and eventually driving in a run with a sacrifice fly.

Burroughs, who turned 20 last week, is working his way up in the San Diego Padre chain, but afterward, Lasorda gave him the stamp of approval.

"Gonna be a good one, a real good one," he said, smiling widely as the reporters kept coming in waves.

"He's just got to BELIEVE IN HIMSELF!"

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