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BEIJING 2008 : BASEBALL

U.S., Cuba will be grudge match

August 21, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- The Cold War is over, even in sports.

Gone are the classic Olympic battles between the U.S. and Soviet Union in basketball and hockey and between the U.S. and East Germany in women's swimming.

However, one rivalry remains -- on the baseball diamond, where a U.S.-Cuba matchup is often about more than just sports.

"The rivalry between Cuba and the U.S.A. is close to my heart," said Cuban Manager Antonio Pacheco, who played in many of the series' more memorable games during a long career as a standout second baseman for the island's national team. "This is a big ballgame. These are two teams with great quality."

And they'll meet again Friday in the semifinals of the Beijing Olympic baseball tournament after the U.S. edged Japan, 4-2, Wednesday in its final game of pool play, improving to 4-3 to earn the No. 3 seeding for the medal round. Cuba (6-1) is seeded second behind unbeaten South Korea (7-0), which plays Japan (4-3) for the other spot in the gold-medal game.

It's only fitting that what could be the last Olympic baseball tournament features a showdown between the U.S. and Cuba, the only countries to win a baseball gold medal, on the final weekend of the Games. Baseball, along with softball, has been removed from the schedule for the 2012 Games in London, and the International Olympic Committee will vote next year whether to consider the sports' for reinstatement.

But if this winds up being baseball's last hurrah, at least it's going out with a bang.

"They've had the most success of any team in the world," U.S. Manager Davey Johnson said of Cuba. "They've been dominant in World Cups, and they've been dominant in most of the Olympics. So it's a thrill to have the opportunity to play them.

"We still think we're the best club in North America. Or South America. So we welcome the challenge. We enjoy playing Cuba."

They enjoy it even more when they win, of course, as Johnson did last November when he managed a team of U.S. minor leaguers to a World Cup title, the Americans' first in 33 years. It was the first time Cuba had lost in 10 tries. And a team of U.S. collegians beat the Cuban Olympic team twice in a tournament in the Netherlands last month, extending to three a winning streak that was ended here with Cuba's extra-inning victory over the U.S. in pool play.

Naturally there have already been fireworks between the two teams, with Johnson accusing Pacheco of having pitcher Pedro Luis Lazo throw at the head of U.S. infielder Jayson Nix in that game.

Pacheco shot back, accusing Johnson of "a lack of respect" for his team.

But before any of that could become relevant again, the U.S. had to get past Japan in a game neither team appeared particularly interested in playing since both had already secured spots in the final four.

"It's like when you clinch a division," Johnson said. "You know you're going to be in the playoffs. So this game really didn't mean a whole lot."

As a result, the game was scoreless through 10 innings, with both teams managing only five hits combined. But under a new tiebreaker rule, which debuted to much controversy here, both teams started their at-bat in the 11th inning with runners on first and second. And the U.S. made the most of its jump start, getting RBI singles from Brian Barden and Nate Schierholtz on the first two pitches of the inning, keying a four-run rally.

After retiring the first two batters in the bottom of the inning, U.S. reliever Casey Weathers ran into some trouble before retiring pinch-hitter Shinnosuke Abe on a pop foul with the bases loaded.

Now it's on to Cuba, with Johnson hoping to get offensive threats Nix and Matt LaPorta back. Both players were hospitalized after being hit in the head by pitches -- Nix off a deflection -- earlier in the tournament.

"It's a big motivation for us to win [the gold]," said Pacheco, leaving unsaid the fact they need to beat the U.S. to have a shot. "Baseball is a big game in Cuba, and this being the last time it is in the Olympics, it will be very emotional for Cubans."

And, given the rivalry, for everyone else too.

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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