Friday, August 15, 2008

Team USA Loses Another Strange one, 5-4 to Cuba, Behind International Tie-Breaker

By: Dick Cooke
I'll start this entry by saying today was the best weather we've had yet. Yesterday's rain cleared the air, and we discovered that there are mountains just west of the city. A spectacular day - blue skies, 82 degrees, low humidity.

Now, for this next part, the baseball purists/traditionalists who may be reading this perhaps may want to stop here and skip the rest of today's entry, as I will now explain the new International Baseball Federation (IBAF) tie-breaker format, which has been implemented for this Olympics. It came into play in two games today, ours being one of them. Here goes.

In the interest of having baseball (and softball) games end in a timely fashion, a tie-breaker format has been implemented in extra innings. If the score is tied after 10 innings, then each team begins the 11th with runners on first and second and no one out. Each manager chooses who will be the first hitter, then the two hitters preceding him in the line-up go to first and second. You start every additional inning the same way. Whenever one team outscores the other in an inning, the game is over. When we were together at the All-Star game in July, we heard this was being considered, but none of us thought that there was any way it would be approved.

Back to the day.

9 a.m.  - We meet with the scouts to talk about Cuba, who we know well. This is the eighth game versus Cuba over the years for me, and a good number of these players have been on this team since my first USA team in 1999.

We beat them in November in the World Cup final; we beat them in Havana in the Olympic Qualifier final in 2006, and every game has been memorable in some way. We know what to expect. Aggressive offensively, great pitching, players who run, power, great defense, a veteran catcher - a major-league caliber team. They play a very slow pace and try to intimidate umpires and lesser opponents.

10 a.m.  - Van leaves for the ballpark. Today is our first game in the main stadium.

10:30 a.m. - BP in the cages. Davey has decided to hit in the cages for each of these morning games to allow the players to leave from the village a little later. I throw to Barden, Hessman, who is nursing a bruised heel, and Fowler who wants to get some right-handed swings.

11:30 a.m.  - First pitch. It's a beautiful stadium, which holds about 10,000. The bleachers down each foul line are full, and the outfield bleachers are fairly packed as well. Probably 5,000 or 6,000 here for the game, including a good contingent of Cuban and USA fans.

Trevor Cahill starts for us and struggles in the first. A leadoff walk followed by a double and, by the end of the inning, it's 2-0 Cuba.

Cahill knocks down a hard come-backer with the bases loaded to get a force at the plate and that proves to be a big play. If he doesn't get a glove on it, it is up the middle for two more runs. There were two marginal pitches to the first hitter, which were called low for balls, and Cahill appeared to be bothered by the calls and become tentative as he is a sinker-baller and needs the low strike.

He battled his fastball command all day; his velocity was not where it usually is, his off-speed stuff was spotty, but he leaves after five having allowed only those two first inning runs. Four walks, three strikeouts, six hits, 94 pitches. He survives, and keeps us in the game.

In the fourth, we make it 2-1 on doubles by Tiffee and Schierholtz, and tie it on a bloop double down the left field line by John Gall. Jeremy Cummings comes on to pitch for us in the sixth, and veteran Cuban right-hander Luis Lazo come on for Cuba. Lazo has been with the team forever and is a talented, confident veteran. Cummings does a nice job but gives up a long home run to Cuban designated hitter Despaigne in the eighth. 3-2 Cuba.

Lazo has been untouchable. He is simply a very big man. Picture David Ortiz on the mound with some athleticism. Lazo could be 35 or 45 years old. He used to run it up to 95-97 with a devastating split finger. Now he's "dropped" down to 89-93 and throws 70 percent sliders. He varies speeds on his fastball and his slider; he changes arm angles, and he pounds the strike zone.

We can't touch him and have a bunch of bad swings but, in the bottom of the eighth, Jayson Nix hits a hanging 1-0 slider into the left-field bleachers to tie it at three. Great at-bat.

Mike Jepson comes on to pitch for us in the ninth. It's still tied as we go to extra innings, and Cuba hits a leadoff triple in the 10th off of Jepson, but he strikes out two and gets a ground out to keep the game tied. Teagarden gets hit to lead off the tenth for us. Donald sacrifices him to second base, but Fowler flies out, and Nix pops out to end the threat. Top of the 11th.

Now it's time to try-out the new tie-breaking format. Feel free to leave the room...

Cuba starts with their lead-off hitter at the plate, and their eight and nine-hole hitters at second and first base, respectively. Jeff Stevens is on to pitch for us.

As expected, Cuban center fielder Giorbis Duvergel sacrifices them to second and third. Michel Enriquez lines the first pitch to him, just past the glove of first baseman Tyler Tiffee, and Cuba leads 5-3. Alexander Mayeta grounds into a double play, and we head to the bottom of the 11th.

We have to score two to extend the game. We start with Jayson Nix at the plate, and Jason Donald at second and Dexter Fowler at first, our two best runners.

Nix squares to bunt; the pitch runs in on him, hits his barrel, and goes straight into his face, catching him just above the left eye. Lazo is on from the mound gesturing, and, while Nix eventually leaves under his own power, it looks bad. He'll go to the hospital for overnight observation.

Brian Barden steps in for Nix and successfully bunts the runners to second and third. Tyler Tiffee just misses a hanging slider and hits a long fly ball to center field, which scores Donald. Fowler advances to third. 5-4 Cuba, two outs.

Matt Brown swings at a first pitch slider and pops it straight up to catcher Pestano. Game over. Lazo goes six; hope you like the new format. It's a confused clubhouse at best. We're not sure how to react to losing that way, but we are aware we are now 1-2 with our hands full and down one positional player.

Through 10 innings it was a very, very good baseball game. Another re-group moment is upon us as we have Canada tomorrow at 10:30. They lost 7-6 to Cuba last night. Lefty Brett Anderson on the mound for us.

This evening it's back to Tiananmen Square with Roly, Blundell and security guys Joe Chan and LeRoy Hendricks.

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