Despite 5-run first, U.S. finds it's not in Cuba's league Gold-medal favorite rallies to defeat collegians, 9-6

July 30, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- Beforehand, U.S. baseball coach Ron Fraser joked: "We just postponed the game. We can't get our kids to come out after seeing them take batting practice."

The Cubans are good, but not that good.

The United States took a 5-0 lead in the first inning of last night's first-round Olympic game, only to fall, 9-6, to the older, more experienced gold-medal favorites.

The world's top amateur team quickly solved the U.S. pitching, scoring nine straight runs, starting with a third-inning grand slam TTC by second baseman Antonio Pacheco.

It was a predictable outcome, considering that the U.S. team consists mainly of recent college draft picks, while the Cubans feature several players considered major-league caliber.

Many of those players are aging -- first baseman Lourdes Gurriel is 35, center fielder Victor Mesa 32 -- but Pacheco is 28 and third baseman Omar Linares only 24.

Fraser said before the game that the Cuban team probably could win 60 to 70 games as a major-league expansion franchise. That, too, might be an exaggeration, but the truth is, no one knows.

Even last night, the Cubans were difficult to judge. Many displayed major-league tools,but the game was a sloppy affair that featured nine errors and lasted four hours.

Jeffrey Hammonds, the Orioles' signed No. 1 draft pick, batted third for the U.S. team and went 2-for-4 with a walk. He is now 7-for-17 (.412) in this round-robin tournament.

"The one thing that prevents Cuba from playing better baseball is that they don't have enough competition," Fraser said after his U.S. team lost for the first time in four games.

"Most of the time, they're kind of bored," Fraser said. "If they played better competition, they'd be a better team."

Yet they compete mainly against themselves. Fidel Castro's communist regime cut off legal emigration three decades ago. Since then few Cubans have escaped to play in the major leagues.

Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro both were born in Cuba, but the families of both fled to Miami when they were children. Meanwhile, Cuban stars like Linares remain largely anonymous to U.S. fans.

Of course, the international baseball community knows them, for Cuba has won nine of the past 11 Pan Am Games, and 19 of the last 23 world championships in which it has competed.

Cuba went 5-2 against Team USA in their national pre-Olympic tour, and one of the American victories came against Cuba's second team.

The Cubans outscored the United States 60-27 on that tour. Before last night's game, Fraser said, "I've never seen them this good."

"We can't play Cuba straight-up," Fraser said. "We can't play them station-to-station. There's no way to beat them station-to-station.

"The only way we can beat them is with a lot of movement -- run-and-hit, hit-and-run, bunt-and-run. We have to put pressure on them that no one's put on them."

As it turned out, the U.S. team didn't need a running game to apply pressure, for Michael Tucker -- the Kansas City Royals' No. 1 draft pick -- hit a three-run homer in the first.

The United States then scored two more runs after Cuba shortstop German Mesa committed a double error on a potential inning-ending double play, and Cuba manager Jorge Fuentes changed pitchers.

It seemed a good omen, but Cuba got the grand slam by Pacheco in the third, took the lead with two runs in the fourth and scored three more times in the sixth.

Three of their runs were unearned. In the sixth, two U.S. pitchers committed errors, and one threw a wild pitch that led to a run.

"I was really surprised by the performances of both teams," Fuentes said. "I didn't expect to see such poor defense. I think the pressure affected everyone."

Actually, the Cubans should have relaxed knowing Castro left Spain at 5 a.m. yesterday amid rumors of unusual troop movement and a possible revolution back home.

Fraser said Castro had merely seen enough.

"If he thought they were in trouble, he'd be here," he said. "I guarantee you, he'd be sitting right behind them."

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