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They were a bunch of kids playing grown men. U.S. baseball
players stayed up late, savoring the opening ceremonies
experience, returning to their rooms around two in the morning
and rising four hours later to play Nicaragua in the opening
game of the eight-team round-robin tournament. And while the
Americans watched fireworks and listened to Gladys Knight, the
Nicaraguans--the starters, anyway--skipped the ceremonies. They
were rested and ready for the kids.

And for the first four innings of yesterday's game at
Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Nicaragua played superior
baseball. Starting pitcher Asdrudes Flores, 35 and wily, was
nibbling on the corners and changing speeds much like big league
countryman Dennis Martinez of the Cleveland Indians.

However, the kids chipped away where they could, and Kris
Benson, who grew up down the road in Marietta, Ga., pitched
eight innings and struck out seven in a 4-1 U.S. victory.

"I think we were a little tired, a little nervous, even though
we had a lot of adrenaline," said U.S. catcher Matt LeCroy.
"We've never played in a stadium this big, in front of a crowd
this big [40,458]. It took us a while to get going. We weren't
swinging at pitches we could hit."

The kids mounted two-run campaigns in the fifth and sixth
innings, each time making the most of one hit. Flores, who gave
up three hits and struck out four in 5 1/3 innings, was masterful.

Benson, the former Clemson pitcher and the No. 1 overall pick
(by the Pittsburgh Pirates) in last month's major league draft,
showed his immense talent too. He seemed to tire in the seventh,
walking the leadoff hitter, giving up a one-out single, feeling
the effects of the 92 degree day. But he got out of that jam and
started the eighth with two fastballs that were as fast as the
temperature was high.

"I think my main pitch tonight was my curveball," Benson said,
his days and nights plainly confused. Baseball is not meant to
be played at 10 a.m., not after Little League, anyhow. As the
hour got more civilized, Benson emerged from his grogginess. He
allowed the run in the first, but over his next seven innings
only one base runner reached second.

The Nicaraguans couldn't blame their struggles on lack of
experience: Their youngest player is almost two years older than
the oldest player on the American team. Even though the
Americans are all first-time Olympians and many of the
Nicaraguans had been here before, the visitors also knew they
had their hands full in their opener.

Darrin van Tassell, the Nicaraguan coach (except when he's at
his regular job, as pitching coach at Georgia Southern), was
impressed. He acknowledged that the Americans are vulnerable to
lefthanders with good control. But they saw one in Flores, on a
day their bats were sluggish, and it was not enough. "Their
chances for a medal are fantastic," Van Tassell said.

Van Tassell is a native son of Georgia despite his coaching
affiliation. His words were spoken with a hint of pride.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Chad Allen couldn't elude Julio Cesar Osejo's tag, but the U.S. still scored four times.