USA Baseball beats Cuba, Wins Gold


Wednesday, September 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


A ragtag bunch of minor leaguers led by Hall of Fame manager Tom
Lasorda beat mighty Cuba 4-0 Wednesday in a game that – stunningly – was
no contest.


International baseball's dynasty went down with only three hits off Ben
Sheets, Milwaukee's first-round draft pick last year, then stood and
watched as someone else celebrated after the title game.


Unlike Cuba's 6-1 win over the Americans on Saturday, this one came
with no fussing or fighting. During the Americans' only loss of the
tournament, they wound up going face-to-face with the Cubans and
exchanging angry words.



On Wednesday, however, Mike Neill hit a first-inning homer as the
Americans cranked it up early instead of late. Ernie Young – at the center
of Saturday's bench-clearing dust-up – more than got even with a
bases-loaded single.


Catcher Pat Borders, who was spiked at home in that first game, also
had an RBI double as an exquisite payback.


Those hits put the upset on the fingertips of Sheets, an unflappable
right-hander who got 16 ground-ball outs in the first eight innings,
setting up a pulsating ninth.


With the Americans standing on the front step of their dugout and a
U.S. flag hanging behind the bench, Sheets strode calmly to the mound to
start the ninth.


He got Cuba's first two hitters swinging – Luis Ulacia threw his helmet
at the side of his dugout after going down for the second out.


When Neill made a sliding catch of Yasser Gomez's fly in left field for
the final out, Sheets fell to his knees and raised his arm in celebration
as players streamed toward him for a huddle on the mound.


Soon, they piled up near the dirt at third and Lasorda – wearing a U.S.
flag over his left shoulder, hugged his coaches while the players took a
victory lap.


The Cubans sat in their dugout stunned, knowing their dynasty was done.


The best team in international baseball had its 21-game winning streak
snapped with a loss to the Netherlands during the tournament, then had its
hold on the gold broken by its biggest rival.


The long-awaited matchup had the trappings of a seventh World Series
game – and all the finality. Flashbulbs twinkled around the stadium as the
U.S. team stood on the first base line and the Cubans assembled along the
other one for pregame introductions.


Lasorda, who wanted to beat Cuba for the exiles in Florida, walked over
and shook the hand of manager Servio Borges in front of the plate.


Moments later, the Americans were spilling out of the dugout after
Neill's tension-breaking homer in the first – his second big homer of the
tournament.


He also won the opener against Japan with a game-ending homer in the
13th. His two-out solo homer on Wednesday came off Pedro Luis Lazo, a
closer who got a surprise start in the big game.


Lazo was gone in the second, replaced by the pitcher the United States
really had a few things to settle with – Jose Ibar, who shut the Americans
out in Cuba's feisty 6-1 win on Saturday and hadn't allowed a run all
tournament.


Ibar also hit Young in the back with a fastball in that preliminary
game, bringing both teams off the benches to exchange nasty looks.


Young faced Ibar one more time in the fourth, grounding out. Young more
than got even an inning later with a decisive hit off Cuba's hardest
thrower.


Borders doubled home the first run off Ibar in the fifth. Right-hander
Maels Rodriguez came on and sent a ripple through the crowd by throwing a
fastball that once registered 100 mph on the scoreboard.


Rodriguez also hit a batter and loaded the bases to bring up Young, who
slashed a 98 mph fastball up the middle for a two-run single and a 4-0
lead.


Young spun around and slammed his hands together at first while U.S.
players poured from the dugout to welcome the runners home. They sensed
that the upset was at their fingertips.


More precisely, it was in Sheets' right hand. His sinker kept the
tournament's top-hitting team – a .344 average – from so much as
threatening.


Sheets retired 11 Cubans in a row and got 12 ground-ball outs in the
first six innings, when only one runner got as far as second base in the
entire game.





Louis DeLuca / DMN


USA manager Tommy Lasorda (right) gets a hug from winning pitcher Ben Sheets after shutting out Cuba 4-0 and winning the gold medal for baseball at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.