U.S. Makes Another Powerful Statement


After crushing seven home runs, five in the first inning, four in a row, and reducing once-proud Japan to Team Rag-Tag in a 15-5, mercy-rule victory, the U.S. baseball team put down its bats and kicked up its heels.

Cigar, anyone?

Somewhere, Cuba was watching.

Thursday night's win, before 52,384 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, was as much a statement as it was a victory.

Somewhere, Cuba was wondering.

After a slow Olympic start, in which it scored only 11 runs in its first two games, the United States has scored 30 runs in its last two, victories over Italy and Japan as they steamroller toward Sunday's game against Cuba, defending Olympic champion and winner of 138 consecutive games in international competition.

The U.S. players are saying it by the book, of course. Coach's orders.

"We're not comparing ourselves to what the Cubans do," said outfielder Jacque Jones, who led the U.S. team with three hits and four runs batted in against Japan. "We don't have to beat the Cubans. You guys are building this matchup Sunday into more than it really is."

Maybe, maybe not, but here's how it shakes out. Team USA's victory over Japan improved its record to 4-0 in round-robin play, with three games to play. The top four teams in the eight-team field advance to the medal round.

Cuba is also 4-0. How could players not look ahead? If Cuba beats Italy on Saturday, and the U.S. takes care of Australia, the U.S. and Cuba will each be 5-0 when they meet.

While both teams will advance to the medal round regardless of that outcome, the psychological effect of a U.S. victory--or defeat--could be monumental.

Without saying so publicly, everything the U.S. does relates to Cuba. Cuba is Olympic baseball, no matter that it has struggled thus far.

"In a big game, I still say Cuba is the most dangerous team by far," Bertman said.

But the U.S. is pressing hard and fast. Thursday's first inning was proof enough, a seven-run show of bombast that knocked Japanese starter Koichi Misawa from the game and the U.S. team into the record books.

After Jason Williams was hit with a pitch to open the game, Mark Kotsay singled to right, with Williams taking third.

Pretty routine stuff. Then Jones cranked Misawa's 1-1 pitch into the center-field seats.

Still, pretty tame.

Misawa even seemed to settle down, getting Travis Lee to fly out to right and Matt LeCroy to pop to short. Then came Olympic history as Chad Allen, Troy Glaus, A.J. Hinch and Warren Morris homered in succession.

Allen homered off Misawa, the other three off reliever Jutaro Kumura.

"In 35 years of coaching, I have never been a part of four home runs in a row and five in one inning," Bertman said.

This is what the Japanese (1-3) were up against. The U.S. had 14 hits against five pitchers. Masao Morinaka, who came in to get the last out in the first, retired 10 of 11 batters at one point, but then gave up seven runs, two earned, in a seven-run fifth inning that put the U.S. ahead, 14-5.

LeCroy's solo home run in the sixth finished the U.S. scoring and gave the U.S. the 10-run differential to have the mercy rule invoked after seven innings.

Starter Kris Benson, the winning pitcher in Saturday's opener against Nicaragua, pitched five innings, giving up five earned runs, five hits, and striking out five while walking two.

The game, believe it or not, actually got interesting when the Japanese cut a 7-0 deficit to 7-5 with two runs in the first, two more in the third and one in the fourth.

But hopes of a Japanese comeback were quickly dashed with the seven-run American ambush in the fifth, highlighted by Williams' three-run home run.

"It's unbelievable for them to be that good, for so long," Allen said of the Cubans. "For a team to win 138 in a row, that's probably the most unbreakable record in sports. Really."

So who's going to break it?


Homer Happy

Facts and figures on the U.S. baseball team's five-home-run first inning Thursday:

* Already leading on Jacque Jones' three-run homer, the U.S. got consecutive two-out home runs from Chad Allen, Troy Glaus, A.J. Hinch and Warren Morris.

* The feat topped a three-homer first inning Wednesday against Italy in a 15-3 U.S. victory.

* Morris had the longest home run, at 485 feet. The lengths of the others were 413 feet (Jones), 407 (Hinch), 373 (Allen) and 352 (Glaus).

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