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Wednesday, September 27
Sheets shuts down Cuba on three hits

SYDNEY, Australia -- A ragtag band of minor-leaguers brought down a dynasty and brought home America's first baseball gold.

Who knew they had it in them?

John Cotton
John Cotton of the U.S. might have gotten hit by this pitch from Cuba's Maels Rodriguez, but there was little tension in the game.

With a U.S. flag hanging behind the bench and Hall of Fame manager Tom Lasorda cheering from the dugout, a team of recent draft choices and major league castoffs beat mighty Cuba 4-0 Wednesday.

They might not be big-leaguers, but they played like them in their country's biggest Olympic game yet.

Mike Neill, who has all of four hits in the majors, hit a solo homer and made a big-league catch for the final out, sliding across the grass in left field to cradle the ball and launch a celebration.

"I know that when this team was picked, a lot of people looked at the list and said, 'Who are these guys?"' said first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, who had two game-winning homers in the tournament. "I want to thank them. It was very motivating for us."

They have identities now -- the guys who won the first baseball gold medal for the country that invented the game.

"Cuba has been the dominating team of all time," said Ernie Young, whose bases-loaded single broke the game open. "Baseball was started by us, it's played by us and now we won the gold. This is the best game I've ever played in my life."

No one had ever done this to Cuba, the Big Red Machine of international baseball. No gold? They didn't even get a run off Ben Sheets, one year removed from being Milwaukee's first-round draft choice.

Sheets pitched a three-hitter -- only one Cuban made it as far as second base -- then raised his arms in triumph and slid to his knees in celebration after Neill's catch closed it out.

"He doesn't scare," Lasorda said. "He wasn't scared at all, even though he knew he was pitching the biggest game of his life. He's just a baby as far as baseball's concerned and look what he did in front of the whole world!"

No pitcher in the world had ever done this to Cuba.

The Cubans swept through the first two official Olympic baseball tournaments, going unbeaten in Barcelona and Atlanta. The Netherlands snapped their 21-game winning streak during the preliminaries last week, and the United States ended their run as champions.

"We didn't win it, but the silver medal is also valuable," manager Servio Borges said. "We do not feel demoralized, not at all, nor do we feel sick, none of that."

They sure looked it. The Cubans seemed to be on the verge of tears as they bowed their heads to accept their silver medals, the confirmation that their dynasty was done.

"Cuba is supposed to be the best baseball team in the world," shortstop Adam Everett said. "We just proved we are when it counts."

The long-awaited matchup of baseball archrivals was remarkably free of the dust-ups and disputes that have colored virtually all of the other games they've played through the years.

Young reminded his teammates to keep their cool -- unlike last Saturday, when they lost to Cuba 6-1 for their only defeat in the tournament.

"They come out and try to intimidate you," Everett said. "That's not our game. We don't come out and play that way. We just come out and beat you."

They got started on it in the first inning, when Neill hit a solo homer. Young, who was at the center of the bench-clearing dust-up Saturday -- more than got even with a bases-loaded single.

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

Those hits put the upset on the fingertips of Sheets, an unflappable right-hander who got 16 groundball outs in the first eight innings, setting up a pulsating 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, the unsung Americans formed a huddle around the mound and raised their index fingers.

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.

"I can't believe how great I feel!" Lasorda shouted as he ran off the field.

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 later dedicated the victory to the Cuban exiles in Florida, walked over and shook Borges' hand in front of the plate.

Moments later, the Americans spilled 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.

The game turned in the fifth, when Borders double home a run and the Cubans brought on their hardest thrower. Maels Rodriguez 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 groundball outs in the first six innings, when only one runner got as far as second base in the entire game.


U.S.-Cuba box score

South Koreans beat rival Japan to claim bronze medal

U.S. playing for gold after Mientkiewicz hits HR in ninth

U.S. baseball team thumps Australia, enters medal round

Cubans rout U.S. in a tension-filled baseball game

U.S. gets two runs on error in eighth to beat Italy 4-2

U.S. survives shaky first inning to beat the Netherlands

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