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Miracle Workers

Sheets Pitches Three-Hitter to Beat Defending Champs


SYDNEY, Australia — The U.S. baseball team, which posted the most significant victory in its history with Wednesday night's 4-0 Olympic gold-medal shocker over Cuba, led a charmed life right to the last out.

With the final result all but certain, and with U.S. right-hander Ben Sheets still pitching in the 90-mph range, Cuban center fielder Yasser Gomez came to bat with two out and nobody on in the ninth.

Cuba had never lost an Olympic baseball game until this tournament, when it dropped a preliminary-round game to the Netherlands. The Cubans, winners of both gold medals awarded since baseball became a medal sport in Barcelona in 1992, came to Sydney with an 18-0 Olympic record and fearsome pride about it.

But much of that had been deflated by Sheets' nice mix of a fastball, slider and sweeping curve. The 6-foot-1, 22-year-old from St. Amant, La., who is expected to make the jump to the Milwaukee Brewers' starting rotation next season, gave up three singles to the Cubans, a team so talented and deep that many believe it could compete in the major leagues.

"And, on all three singles, he broke their bats," teammate Brent Abernathy said.

Down to their last out, the Cubans needed any kind of opening, any crack in the door against Sheets that might remind this collection of minor league hopefuls and major league castoffs just who they were playing.

So when Gomez, a left-hander, slapped a line drive to the opposite field, the Cubans came to their feet in the dugout, watching the ball sink fast toward the left-field line. It was perhaps the best contact made all night against Sheets, who threw 103 pitches and cranked one 94 mph on his 89th pitch, and who had allowed only one Cuban as far as second base.

But left fielder Mike Neill, who had given his underdog team reason to believe they could actually beat Cuba when he hit a solo homer in the first inning, was in hot pursuit. It just so happened that Neill is left-handed, and so, instead of having to reach across his body to make a nearly impossible backhand stab, he could stretch more naturally to his right with his glove hand. He lunged, slid on one knee and got the glove down just at the moment the ball arrived.

Gomez was out and Cuba was done.

Sheets sunk to his knees on the mound and the celebration, which left gloves scattered all around the mound, triggered a victory lap by the entire team and culminated nearly half an hour later in a medal ceremony that had awards platforms stretched from home plate to the right-field wall.

The South Koreans, who won the bronze with a victory over Japan on Wednesday afternoon, joined the U.S. and Cuba on their respective steps. The U.S medals were presented by Jim Easton, IOC member from the United States who owns an athletic equipment manufacturing company in Los Angeles that specializes in metal bats, the kind that, ironically, are no longer used in the Olympics.

Neill's catch was symbolic of the magic this U.S. team had for the 10 days of the Olympic tournament. It was almost as if it each member carried around a four-leaf clover in his pocket. Molded into a workable unit and conned into believing it was better than it was by the daily oratory of former Dodger manager Tom Lasorda, it just never stopped capturing lightning in a bottle.

Neill began it with a homer in the 13th inning of the opener to beat Japan, and Doug Mientkiewicz pushed it into the title game with his ninth-inning shot against South Korea on Tuesday night.

In between, Mientkiewicz beat the Koreans in pool play with similar dramatics, a two-out, bases-loaded, full-count shot in the eighth that stood up to win what had previously been a hard-fought 0-0 game.

Add to that a starting pitching staff that ended up yielding only six earned runs in 57 2/3 innings, a group that included Kurt Ainsworth, Roy Oswalt, Jon Rauch and Sheets--all of whom Lasorda sees as future big league stars--and you had the kind of team with a chance against the veteran Cubans.

And when right fielder Ernie Young slapped a two-run single up the middle in the fifth inning, just minutes after old hand Pat Borders had doubled across Mientkiewicz, the U.S. team had all it needed to finally buy into all that rah-rah syrup Lasorda had been feeding it for a month.

It was then left to Sheets to keep his poise and not let the aura of the Cubans spook him.

And as it turned out, that wasn't likely.

"I really didn't know much about them," he said. "I never much paid attention to international baseball. I was just pitching in whatever leagues I was in."

Long after the game was over, and while Lasorda was speaking to reporters, a handful of other U.S players had drifted back out onto the field. It was more than an hour after the game ended, and it was the middle of the night back in the United States, but they were all on cell phones, presumably calling home.

There were plenty of other places to call from, but this group seemed most comfortable right there.

Understandably so.

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