HAVANA -- The ball fluttered off the bat of Todd Taylor and lifted into the sky as the early evening sun set at this strange angle inside Latin American Stadium yesterday. The first baseman who had hit a titanic grand slam wandered onto the infield grass and the players ran from the dugout and the pitcher stood still on the mound waiting for the inevitable out that would complete an extraordinary 24 hours in the sporting life of an island.
"I knew it was an out," Wilfredo Velez would say later. "Some way we had to catch that ball -- with the hands, the feet, the nose, the mouth. I thank God we won this game."
Efrain Garcia reached up, caught the ball and dropped to his knees, and Velez, the little left-handed pitcher, pumped his fist and Puerto Rico celebrated an extraordinary upset, a 7-1 victory over the United States in the baseball semifinals at the Pan American Games.
There will be no United States-Cuba rematch in tonight's gold-medal final. Instead, the United States will be playing for the bronze, while Puerto Rico goes for the gold.
Puerto Rico completed the Pan Am Games' greatest double play. A night earlier, the Puerto Rican men's basketball team KO'd the United States in a semifinal.
"We can't make any excuses," U.S. first baseman Dan Melendez said. "This team is good enough to be in the gold-medal game. It's like a chain reaction. First, the women's basketball team loses to Cuba. Then, the men lose to Puerto Rico. Then, us."
It was an ugly loss for a team that already had achieved one great win, beating Puerto Rico, 10-3, in the first round to finish in the top four and receive a berth in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
This game was different. Garcia hit a third-inning grand slam off U.S. starting pitcher Jeff Ware to take care of the offense.
A sideshow occurred with runners on first and third in the sixth, when U.S. relief pitcher Kennie Steenstra tried a fancy pickoff, looking to the lead runner before pivoting and throwing to first. First-base umpire Nelson Diaz of Cuba called a balk on Steenstra, which forced in the fifth run and sent U.S. coach Ron Polk into a rage and out of the game.
Doing his best impression of former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver, Polk raced from the dugout to argue the call. Diaz shoved Polk, and eventually, all six umpires, plus a translator, escorted the ejected U.S. coach from the field. Polk picked up his brief case, grabbed his neck and fled.
"I thought the umpire tried to take the game from the kids and bring attention to himself," Polk said. "I went out there to ask him why he called a balk. He started pushing me. It never happens in U.S. baseball. It got me more irritated than the call. I spent more time arguing the push than the call."
The balk was a footnote. The game was decided when Garcia unloaded in the third against Ware, the Old Dominion right-hander who pitched valiantly in Sunday's 3-2 loss to Cuba.
"I just didn't have anything," Ware said.
Garcia made the most of his trip around the bases. He stood and watched the ball as it flew into the left-field bleachers, and then he slowly trotted to first, his right index finger in the air.
"The first baseman, Melendez, he said, 'We're going to hit you the next time you're up,' " Garcia said. "I said, 'Come get me now.' "
The United States could do little damage against Velez, a 5-foot-9, 25-year-old left-hander who throws "a sinker, junk, anything."
"You throw a fastball to the U.S., you're going to be dead meat," Velez said.
Velez made only one mistake, a hanging curve that Chris Roberts turned into a first-inning home run. After that, he befuddled the U.S. batters, allowing seven hits while striking out six.
"If we faced him four times, we'd beat him three," Melendez said. "But this was one of those days where nothing went right. We'd come back to the dugout, thinking we should have gotten a hit against him. Baseball can be a crazy game."
And the Pan Am Games can be a crazy event. Who could have guessed that Puerto Rico would knock off the two most powerful U.S. teams? But it happened.
Puerto Rican flags waved. A bugle was sounded. Fans sang a beautiful, but profane song about the United States team.
The loose translation: We kicked your butt.