Cuba regains Olympic baseball title

ATHENS, Agencies

Two-time champions Cuba outgunned giant-killers Australia 6-2 here Wedneday to regain the Olympic baseball title in the absence of their arch-rivals United States.

Cuba, who lost to the U.S. team of minor leaguers in the 2000 Sydney final, erupted with 13 hits to seven for Australia, who had never won a medal since the sport became a full Olympic sport in 1992.

Japan’s first all-professional Olympic team outclassed Canada 11-2 in the bronze-medal play-off earlier, restoring some of their pride following a stunning 1-0 semifinal loss to the Aussies.

Canada, who have earned their first-ever Olympic ticket after the United States faded in the continental qualifiers, could not make the most of their stock of players based in the U.S. minor leagues.

“We are very happy that we have the won the gold medal. It is very important because baseball is a national sport for us,” Cuban power-hitting leftfielder Frederich Cepeda said.

Cuban manager Higinio Velez left the stadium without talking to reporters while starting pitcher Norge Luis Vera said the eight-nation tournament had been tough.

“There were many strong, well prepared teams. But we worked hard and were able to win the gold.”

Relying on new talent after a series of defections, Cuba drew first blood when Frederich Cepeda slammed a two-run homer off Australian starter John Stephen in the top of the fourth inning.

In the bottom of the inning, however, Thomas Brice nearly scored for Australia when his soaring fly over centerfield found the glove of Eriel Sanchez against the wall when first and second bases were loaded.

The ball bounced off the palm of Sanchez’ glove and apparently rolled down the wall. But Sanchez managed to grab it back as he fell to the ground and it was declared by umpires as a catch.

But Australian manager Jon Deeble called it as one of a “number of missed calls that hurt our team.”

“Other than that, the team played outstandingly,” he said. “Overall we are satisfied with our placing.”

Australia, beefed up by players from the U.S. minor leagues and a few with major league experience, finally scored in the fifth inning as Paul Gonzalez banged a solo home run over rightfield, sending Cuban starter Norge Luis Vera off the mound.

But Cuba’s first reliever Vicyohandri Odelin was immediately replaced by Adiel Palma after conceding two walks.

Palma survived a scare after walking Glenn Williams to load the bases. But he struck out Brendan Kingman on a full-count pitch.

In the sixth, Cuban guns boomed again as Sanchez’s line drive to left field drove in two runs.

Ryan Smith relieved Stephen but Eduardo Paret drove the ball hard into leftfield past third base for two more runs to put Cuba ahead 6-1.

Australia cut the deficit on an RBI single by pinch hitter Brett Tamburrino in the eighth.

In the bottom of the ninth, David Nilsson popped out and Glenn Williams’s foul was easily caught out before Cuban stopper Danny Betancourt struck out Kingman to secure the gold.