HAVANA -- The toss traveled maybe three feet. That's all. But in that three feet of space between Cuban shortstop German Mesa and his second baseman, there was this: Two undefeated teams waiting for something to give, 60,000 voices suddenly quiet for the first time all day, one out in the eighth inning and Americans dancing off every base. It was the play of the day.
U.S. catcher Charles Johnson had cracked the ball far to Mesa's left. He dived, landed on his stomach, somehow grabbed the ball. Runners were on the move. He scrambled to his knees, somehow pulled the ball out of his glove and flipped it to Antonio Pacheco. Pacheco tagged, pivoted, fired to first. Inning over, rally over, game -- for all intents and purposes -- over.
Cuba beat the United States, 3-2, yesterday to emerge as the lone undefeated (7-0) team at these 11th Pan American Games. The Americans (5-1) only can hope to meet Cuba again in the next week's medal round to even things up. For now, all they have are memories of Mesa's toss.
"When I hit it, I didn't think he had a chance right then," Johnson said. "But then, with him being a great player, I saw him diving and I said, 'Oh no.' "
"If he doesn't make that play, we score two runs," U.S. manager Ron Polk said. "I've seen German cover a lot of ground before, so it wasn't just him gloving it, it was him getting the ball out of his glove. That was a big-league play."
It was, in many ways, a big-league game. The U.S. team arrived at 12:30 p.m. for the 2 p.m. game, and when a group of them ran warm-up sprints across the outfield, the fans rose to give them a standing ovation.
"It was a great feeling," Johnson said. "There was, from what they tell us, 60,000 fans and I know I've never played before 60,000. When we came in on the bus, the stadium was already packed at 12 o'clock."
U.S. starter Jeff Ware pitched eight innings and allowed seven hits to take the loss before the loud and rowdy Cubans. Jorge Luis Valdes surrendered five hits in five innings for the victory. Cuba first baseman Lourdes Gurriel hit a home run and an RBI double off the leftfield wall. And reliever Omar Ajete, who entered the game in the sixth to quell a rally that had cut Cuba's lead to 3-2, picked up the save. Ajete had only one scare all afternoon: the eighth inning.
Leadoff man Jeffrey Hammonds, who scored both U.S. runs, led off with a full-count single to right and advanced to second when Ajete fumbled Steve Rodriguez's sacrifice bunt. After fouling off four two-strike pitches, Chris Roberts dropped a base hit into shallow rightfield to load the bases with no one out.
But Ajete struck out third baseman Jason Giambi, bringing the crowd back alive. Cuban flags waved in a sea of noise. Johnson took a strike. And then he swung, sending the ball to Mesa's left.
"I thought for sure it was up the middle," U.S. centerfielder Roberts said. "The next thing I know I saw Mesa flip the ball. That he got it out of his glove is just an incredible play."
Asked if it was the best play he had ever made, Mesa, 24, said, "One of the best, especially because of the circumstances.
"When you're in the championships going for a gold medal, you have to take care of things."
But as has been the case all summer, yesterday's game did little to help determine which team is better. Cuba has won four of the seven meetings with the United States, but three of those have come by one-run margins. If everyone involved has a say, the teams will meet one more time -- in the final.
"It means a lot, but we're going to see these guys again," Polk said. "We're going to save it all for the gold medal game."