BARCELONA, Spain -- It all started with Taiwan's ritual of staring down the other team two hours before the game. Then the game lasted 3 1/2 hours. There were 23 hits, including four home runs. Seven pitchers were used. Fourteen runners were stranded.
The U.S. Olympic baseball team survived the marathon, and another scare yesterday, beating Taiwan, 10-9, at L'Hospitalet Stadium in its second preliminary game in two days.
The United States (2-0), which got outstanding hitting from third baseman Phil Nevin, right fielder Chad McConnell and catcher Charles Johnson, will meet Italy today, a team that was demolished by gold-medal favorite Cuba, 18-1, yesterday. The U.S. team is scheduled to play five games in the next six days.
But the United States certainly won't go into the game overconfident. It has problems, namely pitching. The United States used three pitchers yesterday, and after the game, when manager Ron Fraser was asked who was going to start against Italy, he jokingly said, "Whoever catches the ball when I throw it up in the air."
All jokes aside, left-hander B.J. Wallace, the first pick of the Montreal Expos, will start today, but the U.S. team's problems could be in the bullpen. Closer Darren Dreifort, who pitched 1 2/3 innings in the almost-embarrassing 4-1 victory over Spain on Sunday, went 3 1/3 yesterday, relieving Richard Green, who threw only 37 pitches after replacing starter Ronald Villone in the sixth.
Dreifort showed some fatigue that could be coming from the hot and steamy weather. He allowed three hits, but one was a monstrous three-run homer by Kuang-Shih Wang in the seventh to pull Taiwan within 10-9. He also walked three, but finished strong, retiring the last seven batters.
"I know he looked a little tired, but he's our No. 1 closer," said Fraser. "If he can't do it, then nobody can. It's no secret that the team with the most depth at pitching will probably win the gold medal.
"We didn't pitch that well, but we still won the ballgame," said Fraser. "Our pitchers still battled, and we got people out when we had to. We have
some depth. We just need better control. Our hitting was the best I've seen it. Remember, we've only been together for five weeks, and I think we're playing fairly well. We'll work our way through this, and hopefully we won't get hurt while we're doing it. Other teams we're playing against have been together five or six years."
Actually, Taiwan's team has been together for four years, and it's a star-studded group, with 17 of its 20 players having played in the Little League World Series.
But its pitching, especially hard-throwing left-hander Chen-Jung Lo (two innings, four hits, three runs) and submarine thrower Ming-Hung Tsai (4 1/3 , 10, seven), were no match for the United States.
Nevin was 3-for-5, including a homer, two doubles and three RBI. McConnell and Johnson were also 3-for-5, with McConnell hitting a home run and driving in three runs.
"It definitely was an up-and-down day," said Nevin. "It was the first really intense, really close ballgame we've had this summer. We've made some really big strides today for team unity. It was a big game and more than just a victory."
McConnell's home run came in the top of the second. Michael Tucker singled to open the inning, and Nevin followed with a double off the right-field wall. Lo then hung a curve on the outside corner of the plate and McConnell hung it over the right-field wall for a 3-0 U.S. lead.
"Today I was just trying to tell myself to stay on the ball more and make contact," said McConnell. "I've been struggling a lot hitting-wise all summer. Maybe this is the beginning of something big."
Taiwan, using a two-run homer from right fielder Wen-Chung Chang, rallied for four runs in the fourth, but the United States, on a run-producing single by Oriole draftee Jeffrey Hammonds and a two-run double by Nevin, went ahead 6-4 in the fifth.
Nevin homered to start the seventh, and consecutive singles by Jason Giambi, McConnell and Johnson put the United States ahead 9-5. Chris Wimmer was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to finish the U.S. scoring.
First baseman Kuang-Shih Wang had a three-run homer in the seventh to pull Taiwan within 10-9, but Dreifort wouldn't allow a hit the rest of the way.
"Taiwan has good pitching, good defensive play and they move the ball well," said Fraser. "I think they have a great club and I think we have a great club. We were just a little bit more fortunate."