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September 25, 2000
To The Medal Round!
Olympic Prospectus series
The United States finished the preliminary round with a 6-1 record, tied with Cuba for first place in the group. The U.S. is seeded second and will face third seed South Korea in the first game of the medal round, while Cuba takes on Japan. The winners will play for gold and silver.
How did the second half of the preliminary round go? Not as well as the first half.
Rick Krivda was, as predicted, a disaster in his start against powerhouse Cuba, lasting only two innings and allowing four runs on five hits and a walk. Jon Rauch, who clearly should have started the game, came on in relief and struck out eight in four innings, allowing three hits and only one run. We can hope that the obvious lesson has been learned here.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the U.S. nearly lost to Italy on Tommy Lasorda's birthday. They escaped a tie ballgame only after an Italian reliever fielded an inning-ending groundball by Mike Kinkade and threw the ball away, allowing two runs to score. To the team's credit, though, they had the runners on base (both on walks) to make the error costly, and that's part of the game.
Team USA dismantled the poor Australians in the final game of the preliminary round, 12-1, in a game that required the mercy rule to be invoked. Kurt Ainsworth pitched well again, allowing five hits and racking up three strikeouts in his five innings, but I have to admit that Ainsworth has not lived up to the praise I heaped on him in the first Olympic Prospectus columns. (Neither has Chris Snelling, but let's just move on.) Still, Ainsworth is a great pitcher and one of baseball's best prospects.
For the finals, the U.S. team will start Roy Oswalt against South Korea, who they'll beat senseless--Oswalt pitched seven innings of shutout ball against them last time. Lasorda may get tricky, of course: Chris George may get the surprise start there.
Ben Sheets will certainly go against Cuba in the final. That should be one of the best games we'll never get to see in the States, a tense, hard-fought battle. As much as I've touted the talent of the U.S. pitching staff, the Cubans have dominated with pitching, sporting a Pedro-esque 1.65 team ERA.
This staff will face an excellent U.S. attack, led by slugging outfielder Ernie Young (.421/.607/.632) who has been outstanding with a home run and six walks, and Doug Mientkiewicz (.435/.478/.600). Brent Abernathy has hit well, too (.433/.438/.600). My man Mike Neill has been good, but not nearly as impressive (.208/.387/458), contributing in less gaudy ways: he's tied for the competition lead in bases on balls (seven) and runs scored (eight). Adam Everett has been terrible at the plate, but has made a number of fine defensive plays. DH John Cotton had a great game against South Africa and has been largely silent since.
The Cubans have a number of excellent hitters, and like the U.S. players some of them seem to be taking a lot of walks; Omar Linares and German Mesa, both with five, jump out at me. The Cubans seem to have five starters that all sport lines like .400/.420/.600, which is pretty frightening.
Still, for both teams, running up gaudy statistics against the likes of the hapless South Africans doesn't mean much: there's clearly a great dichotomy in the quality of the field between Cuba and the U.S., and everyone else. The team that can put together a better game, just once, will win.
I have a great hope that Team USA learned their lesson Saturday, will start the right pitcher against Cuba and the teams will give us the best-played game of the tournament. The U.S. beats Cuba for the gold medal, 5-4.
Derek Zumsteg can be reached at email@example.com.