Friday, August 22, 2008

Wheels Come off Late, as Cuba Defeats Team USA 10-2 in Semifinals

By: Dick Cooke
10 a.m.  - The Cookes head to the Hometown Hopefuls hospitality center in downtown Beijing, which is run by Bank of America as a place for USA athletes, coaches and staff to go hang out, eat good food and watch Olympic events on multiple big screen TVs.

We experience vintage Beijing traffic on our cab ride, so by the time we arrive I have less than one hour before I need to get back for our scout meeting.

Adjacent to the Bank of America building is the USA House, and we have day passes so we spend some money in the store grabbing some nice USA attire. Unfortunately, they are not using Chinese pricing.

Susan and the girls stay at the Bank of America facility relaxing, meeting some USA athletes and watching Olympic events. I catch up with our USOC van and head back to the hotel.

2 p.m.  - Scout meeting for our semi-final game with Cuba, and it's fairly short, as we just played them last Saturday. We know they will throw right-hander Vera. He's an El Duque clone, who just happens to top out at 94 mph. He's a veteran, and he can pitch.

They will try and get the game to Lazo, who pitched six innings against us in the first game. We're going with college phenom Strasburg, who must pitch inside and throw his slider for strikes to have a chance.

After the scouts leave, Davey talks with us about the lineup. Nix and Laporta both have the go-ahead from the docs, but Davey will not start them, as he wants them to go through a complete workout before he starts them again. They will be available off of the bench. The lineup will basically stay the same.

3 p.m. - Van to Wukesong

4:20 p.m. - BP

6 p.m. - First pitch.

The script for Cuba could not work out better. Vera is outstanding. His fastball velocity ranges from 84 to 93 mph - by design, he alters speeds on his slider, throws a 72-74 mph curveball and a very good change-up.

He sinks his fastball at times, gets guys to chase four-seamers up out of the strike zone; a masterful job, as he goes six innings, when he turns it over to Lazo.

Strasburg is not as sharp as he was against the Netherlands. He doesn't pitch inside as much as perhaps he should, and leaves after four innings having allowed six hits and three runs, two of which were earned.

Cuba likes the ball out over the plate, and they drive some good velocity fastballs into the right-center gap. He doesn't walk anyone, but his command in the zone is not good, and he isn't effective on the inside half of the plate.

We score one in the fourth on a sac fly by Matt Brown, which plates Barden, and then get another in the fifth on a broken-bat single by Donald, which scores Lou Marson who had reached on an "I've got it, you take it" double.

Brian Duensing comes on to pitch in the fifth, and he, too, appears to not go to his strengths enough and gives up a monster home run to left fielder Cepada in the sixth on a letter-high change-up that is two rows from completely leaving the stadium. 4-2, Cuba, and the game doesn't have a good feel to it, as we don't look comfortable at the plate.

Lazo comes on in the seventh for Cuba, and Mike Koplove for the US. Koplove pitches a scoreless seventh, and he has been flawless since a very bad outing in the first exhibition game versus Canada back in Cary.

It's still 4-2 in the eighth when things fall apart for us. Jeff Stevens on to pitch, and he gives up a one-out three run homer to Cuban right-fielder Bell on a hanging slider. Blaine Neal comes in to pitch and, after a rare error by third baseman Mike Hessman and a single, Cuban catcher Pestano lines a home run just inside the left-field foul pole to make it 10-2.

We get a couple of guys on to lead off the ninth, and then Lazo decides to turn it up a notch, and he unleashes some 94 mph fastballs and 86 mph exploding sliders the likes of which we have not seen from him in a few years.

Lou Marson strikes out to end it, and we quietly move to the bronze medal game versus Japan tomorrow morning at 10:30. We didn't pitch well, they did, they hit four home runs, we struggled at the plate, and you just can't survive that way against a quality team like Cuba. They beat us in every way.

It's a very, very quiet clubhouse and ride back to the hotel and village. Everyone is mentally and emotionally drained. We know the players will feel this disappointment for a while, but they are professionals and we expect and need them to come out ready to play tomorrow morning.

It all hinges on our guy on the mound. Brett Anderson will get the nod, and if he's on, then we have a chance. We will face Japan's ace Darvish, who threw the first two innings against us Wednesday night, and he is probably the best pitcher in the tournament with a plus fastball and three quality off-speed pitches. Nothing is easy.

We'll hit in the cages at 9:15.

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