Nation & World

Baseball: Cuba powers past Americans in semifinal, 10-2

BEIJING — This time, there were no accusations coming from the U.S. bench. Only admissions that Cuba was too good, too powerful, too experienced, and too determined to win what could be the final Olympic gold medal in baseball. The Cubans hit four home runs, pounded their archrivals 10-2 in Friday's semifinal and advanced to their fifth straight Olympic final.

Alexei Bell and Frederich Cepeda each blasted a three-run homer in the eighth inning, and none of the five U.S. pitchers who took the mound could quell the Cuban bats. Bell showboated as he rounded the bases with his index finger raised to the sky, and then he and his teammates celebrated in the dugout. That did not sit well with the U.S. team.

"This is not the first time,'' said U.S. manager Davey Johnson. "They have a lot of fun and do a lot of things we don't condone in the U.S. But it's over.''

And it could be over forever. Baseball was dropped from the menu for the 2012 London Olympics, so Cuba's gold-medal game against South Korea takes on extra importance, and the U.S. team, which plays Japan for bronze, is left with the sick feeling that it may never again win another gold medal.

Cuba has won three of the four gold-medal games since baseball was introduced to the Olympics in 1992, and dominated again this time. Over its past two games, Cuba outscored China and the United States 27-3.

"I never imagined we would win like that against a team like the United States,'' said Cuban manager Antonio Pacheco. "I didn't expect so many runs. If you had told me before the game that we'd win by such a big margin against such good pitchers, I'd say you were crazy. It was a great offensive game for Cuba.''

Johnson went with 20-year-old pitcher Stephen Strasburg of San Diego State, the only collegiate player on the roster and the likely No. 1 pick in the 2009 Major League Baseball draft. He boasts a 97 mph fastball, and had allowed only one hit, one walk and 11 strikeouts in seven innings against the Netherlands earlier in the tournament. Johnson figured he'd give the team the best chance. But the Netherlands is no Cuba.

Strasburg lasted four innings, and gave up a long solo homer by Alfredo Despaigne. It was the U.S. relievers who felt much of the brunt of the Cuban batters. They allowed three home runs between them.

"They seem to find the hole a lot,'' Strasburg said, in the understatement of the evening.

MLB scouts were in the stands at Wukesong Baseball Field, and no doubt they were taking notes on some of the Cubans. Outfielder Bell, for example, is the tournament's batting average leader (.520) and known for his quick wrists. He is 24 years old, and broke the home run record (31) and the RBI record (111) in the Cuban national league this season.

"They've got a lot of talent,'' said U.S. designated hitter Matt Brown. "They can hit. They can pitch. And they beat us fair and square. As far as if they can play in the major leagues, I'm sure a lot of them can.''

Pacheco agreed. "I'd say almost all our players have major-league quality, but that's not for me to evaluate. That's for the scouts to say.''

Not that it makes a difference what scouts think because unless they defect, Cuban players are not allowed to play professional baseball. Pro sports were banned by Fidel Castro in 1962, which is why amateur baseball, and the Olympics in particular, are so dear to the Cubans' hearts and why their players stick around.

The combined age of Cuba's two pitchers Friday was 71. Starting pitcher Norge Luis Vera is 36, and closer Pedro Luis Lazo is a 35-year-old four-time Olympian.

The experience proved valuable. The U.S. threw five pitchers over the course of the game but none seemed to faze the Cubans.

Of course, things would probably be much different if the U.S. sent its major leaguers. But that is unlikely, as the Olympics falls during the baseball season. Johnson said the minor leaguers did just fine, and just happened to run into a hot Cuban team. When the teams played in the first round (a 5-4 extra-inning victory for Cuba), Johnson accused Lazo of throwing at Jayson Nix's head, causing an eye injury. The Cubans vehemently denied it.

This time, Johnson merely lamented that the U.S. isn't able to send its best players.

"We've more than held our own in this tournament and the World Cup and the Olympic qualifiers,'' he said. "It's very different for the United States because Major League Baseball is big business. It's the off-season for NBA, so they can send their players. If it was during the season, I would be amazed if they would be allowed to come.''