VILDECANS, Spain -- The American basketball squad isn't the only Dream Team in these Olympics. Cuba's baseball team is nearly as invincible, an international powerhouse that merely toys with most opponents.
"They come out and strut around and try to intimidate you," said U.S. pitcher Rick Helling, who will start against the Cubans today in the featured game of the baseball tournament. "They know they are good, and they figure they can win it before it even starts. But that stuff doesn't affect me. Sometimes, I don't even remember who is batting against me."
Helling is a specialist of sorts. He is on the U.S. roster for one major reason: He has had more success than any other American pitcher against Cuba. He has given up one run in 9 2/3 innings, including three shutout innings this summer when the teams played seven games. Cuba won five of those, but the United States is convinced it can be competitive with Helling on the mound.
"He's got to be a guy who has confidence against them," said manager Ron Fraser after his U.S. team beat Italy, 10-0, yesterday for its third straight victory here. "He could shut them down. But we have to give him some support."
The Americans certainly are scoring enough. They are averaging eight runs, but that likely would be higher if not for the kindness of Olympic rules. In this tournament, if the home team is ahead by 10 or more runs any point after 6 1/2 innings, or the visitors ahead by 10 or more after seven innings, games are stopped under what is called the knockout rule. The United States reached the 10-0 cutoff against Italy with none out in the bottom of the eighth and two runners on base.
The Italians had no chance against left-hander B.J. Wallace of
Mississippi State. He struck out 14 and gave up five hits, producing what Fraser called "the best game that we have had pitched all summer."
Still, this was Italy (0-3), not Cuba (3-0). Fraser is trying to keep opponents off balance with an aggressive running style, but the Americans had a handful of botched offensive plays against the Italians, including two unsuccessful sacrifice bunts and a failed double steal.
But Fraser was encouraged by the performance of leadoff batter Calvin Murray, who had one hit in the first two games. Murray is the catalyst of the American attack, and he flourished in that role against Italy. He went 3-for-4, scored twice, stole a base and knocked in a run. Chris Wimmer, Orioles signee Jeffrey Hammonds and Nomar Garciaparra each had two RBI, as the United States ran off 15 hits against starter Paola Ceccaroli.
"We are a gambling type of ballclub," said Fraser. "The first part of the lineup likes to run and do things, and then we wait for the other guys to come around. We'll get it right and we'll keep doing it. They [Cubans] will know we're there."
For Helling, who was a first-round pick of the Texas Rangers, this is the biggest game of his life.
"I'm just going out and pitch my style," said Helling, TC right-hander from Stanford. "I am a power pitcher and they are mostly a right-handed hitting team. I'll throw the fastball inside and a slider away. They've had trouble with that when I've faced them before, so we will see what happens this time."
Cuba hasn't had much trouble solving any pitching. The Cubans have won 19 world titles, including seven of the past eight, and the past seven Pan American gold medals. They are older and much more experienced than the Americans.
"What can I say?" said Fraser. "They are in a class of their own. No one is even close to them. We are just going to go out and roll the dice and have some fun."