There was some weird baseball activity at Atlanta-Fulton County
Stadium last night. For one thing, the teams, Cuba and Japan,
were delivered on time, which left baseball officials rejoicing.
Then Cuba introduced Pedro Luis Lazo--a man built like future
Hall of Famer reliever Lee Smith, a man built for closing--as
its starting pitcher. On the other hand, Japan started a
teenager, Hitoshi Ono, who interprets the balk rule in strange
new ways. In the middle of his delivery, with his glove and
pitching hand behind his head, he comes to a "discernible stop."
But the true weirdness came later. Cuba, which has not lost an
international tournament game since 1983, nearly lost last
night. Favored to win a gold medal in the eight-team round-robin
Olympic baseball tournament, Cuba scored two runs in the bottom
of the 10th inning to defeat Japan 8-7. Cuba is now 2-0; Japan
The game-winning run came across when leftfielder Miguel Caldes
bounced a grounder through the infield and into shallow right,
scoring Omar Linares from second. Cuba, by all rights, should
have put away the game much earlier.
Ono served up a first-inning fastball to Orestes Kindelan,
Cuba's massive cleanup hitter, that resulted in what must have
been one of the longest homers ever hit in the home park of the
Atlanta Braves. The two-run blast was estimated to be well over
500 feet, a line shot that soared over the left centerfield wall
and showed no hint of tiredness as it landed in the press box
After giving up three runs in each of the first two innings--Ono
went to the showers after 1 1/3--Japan should have been done for
the night. Cuba, after all, is still Cuba, despite recent
defections. But Japan did not go quietly into the balmy,
beautiful night. Lazo, who hit the first two batters in the
game, gave up home runs in the second and fifth innings and then
was yanked in the sixth when Japan tied the game 6-6. The
Japanese went ahead 7-6 in the top of the 10th when they scored
a run on a ground ball double play.
To those accustomed to watching the Braves play at the stadium,
Olympic baseball will take some getting used to. Cuba looks
nothing like a big league team, never mind the rest of the
Olympic field. There is the sense in some circles that the Cuban
athletic dynasty is starting to show signs of unraveling, and
that was evident last night in the big things, like the fact
that Japan nearly won, and in the little things, like Lazo
throwing a curveball in the dirt when his catcher, Alberto
Hernandez, wanted a pitchout.
But more than anything, Cuba is known for doing what it has to
do to win games, even in the most unlikely of circumstances.
That's what the Cubans did last night. Cuba won weird, but Cuba
won. Just like it always does.
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Third baseman Kosuke Fukudome was on his toes but didn't get this hit.