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September 21, 2000
Off To A Good Start
Olympic Prospectus series
"I don't believe in pitch counts. We lost our counter, so I have no idea how long they worked. That pitcher [Japan's Daisuke Matsuzaka] was outstanding. I think that's the way it should be. I think a young pitcher has to strengthen his arm to get better. It's like a boxer. To strengthen your legs, you have to box."
I wanted to start off with that to show that the Indians, who wanted prized prospect C.C. Sabathia to be on a strict pitch count, were entirely justified in putting him on a flight back to the states.
So, how is the United States team doing? It's 4-0, the best record in the Olympics. Here are the standings:
Country Record United States 4-0 Cuba 3-1 Japan 3-1 Australia 2-2 Netherlands 2-2 Korea 1-3 Italy 1-3 South Africa 0-4
The surprise of the tournament happened Thursday when the Netherlands, who squeaked out a victory over the United States in the exhibition round, beat Cuba 4-2. From here on out, the U.S. faces Italy, Cuba and Australia before they get another day off and then head into the semifinals, where we can expect some fine Mike Neill heroics.
The fight with Cuba should be huge, but Australia is not to be counted out. Their team has beaten the supposedly strong Korean team already and features two great players in Chris Snelling, the Mariners' outfield prospect with frightening power, and former major-league catcher Dave Nilsson.
I almost want to see Lasorda start Rick Krivda against the Aussies, so we can see Snelling set an Olympic record for home runs in a game. If you don't know who Snelling is, go look him up--he's a great prospect and a really funny guy. If only this Australian team had Luke Prokopec and Jeff Williams, or Adrian Burnside.... It's weird, all of those good Australian Dodger prospects aren't able to compete against Tommy Lasorda's U.S. squad.
I find it amazing, really, that the Australian fans haven't added this up and started to raise a huge stink. But hey, the Yankees weren't lending out Ted Lilly, so the Pastaman had to cut some corners. It happens.
Let's recap these first four delicious days:
Sunday, September 17
Cuba 16, South Africa 0 United States 4, Japan 2 (13 innings) Korea 10, Italy 2 Netherlands 6, Australia 4
Mike Neill should be the next coach of Team USA. He's a decent enough guy, he loves international competition and he's good at it. He drew two walks and got two hits, including the game-winning home run in the 13th inning that handed a loss to one of the favored medal contenders. What was he thinking, as he paused for the moment, watching that ball climb up and out? He was probably just overwhelmed with happiness, finding joy in building a little legend away from the major leagues that never took to him.
Ben Sheets pitched well for seven innings, allowing four hits and posting three strikeouts. Shane Heams was ineffective, giving up a run, but it was Proven Closer Todd Williams who served up two hits for the tying run that put the game into extra innings, all four of which were pitched by Ryan Franklin. Franklin, to his credit, allowed only one walk and struck out four. You're likely aware that I think Ryan Franklin should have been a starter, but if he'd been used in long relief after Sheets even, this game would never have gone to extra innings. But heck, if it gives Mike Neill time in the spotlight, so be it.
In other news, Cuba pitched a no-hitter against South Africa and, to rub it in, scored 16 runs.
Monday, September 18
Cuba 13, Italy 5 Australia 5, Korea 3 United States 11, South Africa 1 (7 innings) Japan 10, Netherlands 2
Jon Rauch allowed a run in the first but pitched brilliantly, striking out 13--nearly two an inning--and walking no one. The offense beat up on the South Africans until the mercy rule was invoked, and Mike Neill hit another home run. Three steals this game for a slow patience-and-power team. This should catch up to them when they run into a good defensive catcher.
Tuesday, September 19
Italy 13, South Africa 0, (7 innings) Japan 7, Australia 3 United States 6, Netherlands 2 Cuba 6, Korea 5
Kurt Ainsworth is one fine pitcher. He struggled early with a Dutch team that was waiting on his curve and doing so with some success, loading the bases and scoring in the first inning. As the game wore on, Ainsworth said he went almost exclusively to his fastball in response and retired 18 of the last 22 batters he faced. It was the hitting, though, that really came through: three doubles, two home runs and six walks. Power and patience, I'm telling you, these other teams don't even understand.
Cuba wobbles, almost losing to Korea, and the South Africans benefit from the Mercy Rule again.
Wednesday, September 20
Japan 6, Italy 1 Netherlands 4, Cuba 2 Australia 10, South Africa 4 United States 4, South Korea 0
Doug Mientkiewicz, formerly of Tom Kelly's Triple-A Doghouse, hit a grand slam to win the game 4-0. Lasorda is denied the chance to play little baseball, although he tried: both Brad Wilkerson and Ernie Young stole bases. Adam Everett had a great defensive game. Roy Oswalt allowed nine baserunners in his seven shutout innings but also struck out six batters, which is a pretty good way to keep runners from advancing.
The big news of the day was the Dutch: led by some former major-leaguers, they handed Cuba its first defeat in the Olympics. "We did this for all the Dutch people around the world," said Hensley Meulens, who hit the three-run double that provided all the runs the Netherlands needed.
See? The Cubans aren't invincible, Costas. Now stop slagging America's team and learn their names, because I want to hear you run them down during the slow pan of the medal ceremony.
Derek Zumsteg can be reached at email@example.com.