Sunday, September 17, 2000

Baseball team saves face

U.S. hets HR in 13th to beat Japan

AP Sports Writer

        SYDNEY, Australia — There was no Kirk Gibson arm rake, no dramatic limp around the bases. The longest game in Olympic baseball history needed a finish, not a fist pump.

        While his U.S. teammates jumped with joy, Mike Neill just trudged for home after his two-run homer in the 13th inning gave the United States a face-saving 4-2 victory Sunday over Japan in its opener.

        “I was just excited to get to the plate,” said Neill, a journeyman minor leaguer who homered to right field on a full-count pitch off an industrial league pitcher from Japan. “I was just happy it was over.”

        The United States was just happy it was ahead when it ended. The Americans blew a chance to win it in the top of the ninth, letting in the tying run with a two-out throwing error.

        Neill, a 30-year-old outfielder with a slight facial resemblance to Gibson, saved the United States with the biggest homer of his career. He stood and watched until the ball finally landed just beyond the wall.

        “I got caught up in the moment a little bit,” he said apologetically, with the Japanese players sitting nearby in the postgame interview. “I normally don't do that.”

        Manager Tom Lasorda, who burst from the dugout when both arms raised when Gibson's game-winning homer turned the 1988 World Series, took off his cap, wiped his brow and mouthed: “Whew!”

        “I didn't think about Kirk Gibson as he was rounding the bases,” Lasorda said. “That's gone, boy. This is big.”

        Heartthrob pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka lived up to his billing as Japan's best by pitching 10 tough innings, but he needed a break to save him from a loss.

        The United States was one out away from beating Matsuzaka when third baseman Mike Kinkade threw away a tough-chance grounder in the top of the ninth, letting in a run that tied it at 2.

        Fans were standing and chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” when Kinkade charged Jun Heima's soft roller and threw past first, causing thousands of Japanese fans to erupt.

        To that point, it was a tight match between two young starting pitchers, and the United States surprisingly came out on the better end of it.

        Matsuzaka, a high school champion who was Japan's major league Rookie of the Year in 1999, allowed only two hits until a vagabond minor leaguer got the United States rolling.

        John Cotton opened the seventh with a triple to the base of the wall in right-center, sliding into third base headfirst. It was a career moment for Cotton, 29, who has been let go six times and traded twice in his minor league odyssey.

        With the U.S. players standing on the first step of the dugout and screaming encouragement, Kinkade — Mets fans will remember him from 1998-99 — lined a single to left for the lead.

        Doug Mientkiewicz followed with a single and Matsuzaka made a big mistake, failing to look the runner back to third on Marcus Jensen's comebacker, allowing Kinkade to dash home after Matsuzaka threw to second for a forceout and a 2-0 lead.

        Japan's lineup of four major leaguers could hardly touch Ben Sheets, Milwaukee's first-round draft pick last year. The right-hander gave up only four hits in six shutout innings, getting late swings with a fastball that topped out on the scoreboard at 153 — that's kilometers per hour, or 95 mph.

        So Taguchi tripled off Shane Heams and scored on a groundout in the eighth, cutting it to 2-1, and Japan tied it against Todd Williams with the help of Kinkade's error — the third by the United States.

        A day after he dedicated an upcoming game against Cuba to the exiles in Florida, Lasorda found himself locked in a first-inning argument with an umpire from Cuba.

        Wearing his familiar No. 2, the Hall of Fame manager shuffled onto the field to argue a “safe” call at first base that left the bases loaded with two outs. The argument was mild by Lasorda standards — a little arm waving, over in less than a minute — and became moot when the next batter lined out to short.


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