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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 dzumsteg@baseballprospectus.com.