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Great Drama: U.S. Dials M for Mientkiewicz Again


SYDNEY, Australia — Somewhere along about the time Los Angeles was filling its freeways and heading to work Tuesday morning, a team of deliriously happy minor league baseball players and a chubby 73-year-old Italian-American were jumping around like 5-year-olds near home plate of a muddy field thousands of miles from home.

They were celebrating another Olympic baseball victory and another Doug Mientkiewicz miracle.

This time, Mientkiewicz waited until the ninth inning to destroy South Korea. And this time, his line shot into the right-field bleachers, almost to the exact spot he hit one last Wednesday night, did even more damage. It knocked South Korea out of today's gold-medal game and put his U.S. team in it.

The final score, in a game attended by 14,002, was 3-2, and it meant that the U.S. team of ragamuffin minor leaguers who were expected to do little here but were coaxed and inspired all the way along by former Dodger manager Tom Lasorda, would play defending champion and international power Cuba 17 hours later. Cuba, which beat Japan in the afternoon semifinal, is the only team to have beaten the United States in this tournament, and that one was a fairly ugly show of brushback pitches, hit batsmen and tripped runners.

But even though the U.S. semifinal win will be old news quickly, as the final with Cuba takes center stage, it needs to be told for its drama and incredible story line.

This was a game that had it all: great baseball, stupid baseball, hard-nosed baseball, rain, thunder, lightning, controversy and a storybook ending that set up a storybook final.

When Mientkiewicz came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, with pinch-runner Travis Dawkins at first base and nobody out, the game was already approaching five hours. It had rained lightly the entire game, turning the field into a muddy sandbox. The night, cold and wet, felt like April in Candlestick. Or July in Candlestick.

The inning before, with one out and Mike Neill--home-run hero of his team's 13-inning, opening-game victory over Japan--standing at the plate and Brent Abernathy at third, the stadium suddenly shook as two huge thunderclaps rolled through, followed by two flashes of lightning. The misty night suddenly turned rainy and scary. The plate umpire, who had ruled that the game would go on even after the lightning hit and despite his first base partner running in to inquire about the logic of that decision, soon stopped the game when the rain got so heavy he couldn't see.

Two hours and two minutes later, with more than 2,000 fans still on hand and still in good throat, Neill stepped back into the batter's box.

A week ago, in the eighth inning against South Korea, the United States had been in a similar battle, and had been baffled by side-arm pitcher Chong Tae-Hyon. The score at that stage had been 0-0 and Chong, inexplicably, had been replaced on the mound. The U.S. team had scratched around and loaded the bases for Mientkiewicz, the first baseman who had spent the 1999 season as the Minnesota Twins' starter and had spent the 2000 season with the Twins' triple-A team in Salt Lake City. With two out, left-handed-hitting Mientkiewicz worked the count to 3-and-2, then cranked a fastball from right-handed reliever Jin Pil-Jung into the right-field bleachers for a grand slam.

The United States, as a result of that 4-0 victory, was seeded second for the medal round and played South Korea again in the semifinals, rather than Cuba.

This time, Neill stood at the plate in the eighth. He was facing right-handed reliever Park Seok-Jin, who had, inexplicably, replaced Chong, who had again baffled the U.S. team. This time, the score was 2-2, thanks greatly to the hustle of third baseman Mike Kinkade.

In the seventh, Kinkade had scratched out an infield single and was safe at first on a questionable call by the umpire, then had gone to third when he should have stopped at second on Mientkiewicz's single to right. Again, as had happened at first, it appeared a tag had been put on Kinkade in time, but the umpires called him safe. Marcus Jensen tied it with a sacrifice fly.

The Koreans, who had had two hours of rain to think about it, quickly put the power-hitting Neill on first with an intentional walk. That gave them a double-play chance. Then Ernie Young was hit by a pitch and the bases were loaded for John Cotton. He hit a little bouncer to third base, and things got crazy.

The Korean third baseman, Kim Dong-Joo, played it perfectly, throwing home for the force. The Korean catcher, Hong Sung-Heon, played it perfectly, tagging the plate and taking a step toward first to throw for the double play.

But Abernathy, who would say later that he asked one of the umpires if he could run into somebody coming home and was told he could, veered left of the plate and, just as Hong cocked to throw to first, clobbered him with a forearm. The umpire, Cesar Valdes of Cuba, immediately called Cotton out because of obstruction from Abernathy.

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