08/15/08 5:15 AM ET
U.S. falls to Cuba in 11 innings
Americans' record drops to 1-2; Nix out for remainder of Games
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
"Oh yeah," he said. "I'd like to see them in the finals."
Those are fightin' words, but the big question now is whether the Americans will even have a shot at getting out of the preliminary round.
The United States baseball team is in jeopardy with a 1-2 record after losing a 5-4 thriller to Cuba in 11 innings on Friday. In addition, top Rockies prospect Jayson Nix was lost for the tournament after being hospitalized due to a foul tip that struck his face while bunting off Pedro Luis Lazo, and Johnson accused Cuba of throwing at his player's face.
Oh, and by the way: The new Extra Innings Rule had to be used for the first time, and the Americans pretty much hate it. Terry Tiffee, the Dodgers Triple-A first baseman probably headed for The Show shortly, called it "bogus."
"I don't like the way this ended," Johnson said.
Nix, the team's second baseman who likely would have been due for a callup to Colorado when Major League rosters expand on Sept. 1, was rushed to a nearby hospital after squaring around to bunt off Lazo as Johnson's designated leadoff man in the 11th, utilizing the new Extra Innings Rule implemented by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) in which each extra inning beginning with the 11th begins with runners on first and second and none out.
Cuba led 5-3, having scored twice in the top of the 11th. Johnson chose to put Jason Donald on second and Dexter Fowler on first, sending Nix up to bat.
Johnson had Nix bunt. Lazo's pitch was inside and it skipped off Nix's bat and appeared to hit him flush on the face between the eyes. He was down for a long time, and was then helped off the field with ice on his face.
"I respect the way baseball is played in Cuba, but I don't like it played that way," Johnson said. "I've lost one player already [Mike Hessman to a sore heel], and now I may have just lost one for the entire series today.
"I believe in hard-nosed baseball; that's how I played it in my career. But in my wildest imagination, I didn't think they'd throw it right at my player's coconut."
Responded Cuban manager Antonio Pacheco: "It's a lack of respect. We respect the game and we respect our opponents. We are incapable of doing that to someone."
Lazo was incredulous and seemed floored by Johnson's comments, and said, "He squared around. It hit the fat part of his bat first, and then it hit his face."
"I'm not a big fan of it, because in extra inning games you have to earn the victory," said Donald, the Phillies' Triple-A shortstop. "It takes all the work out of it. Mistakes happen, you get base hits, you have a good chance of winning normally. It was strange running out there to second to start an inning. I've never done it in my life. I probably never will after this."
Brian Barden assumed Nix's at-bat as a pinch-hitter and laid down a perfect sacrifice, and the U.S. had runners on second and third with one out, just as Cuba had done. Then Tiffee came to the plate, and continued a brilliant afternoon by hitting a sacrifice fly to the warning track in center, making it 5-4. About another eight or 10 feet and it would have been a walk-off winner.
But Matt Brown popped out with a foul behind the plate, and the Cubans celebrated.
"I've never been a proponent of the new rule, but everybody's gotta play with it," Johnson said.
What does he really think of it?
"I'm a dinosaur. I'm a purist. I'm not really a fan of putting guys on base and then trying to defend."
Nix had hit the solo homer in the bottom of the eighth that wound up forcing extra innings, answering a mammoth, 430-foot solo homer by Cuba's Alredo Despaigne off Jeremy Cummings -- after 2 1/3 perfect relief innings -- in the top of the inning.
Nix and Despaigne were involved in an incident at the end of the fifth, when Nix took a flip from Donald, the shortstop, to force Despaigne at second -- and then turned and had words with Despaigne after seeing spikes fly high toward him after the tag already had been made. It was that kind of intensity all day between the last two Olympic champions -- the U.S. in 2000, Cuba in 2004.
U.S. starting pitcher Trevor Cahill had said he never had imagined pitching against Cuba one day while he was watching them face Japan in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, when he was a high school student in Vista, Calif. Now he was on the mound facing the country that won three of the previous four baseball gold medals, and in the first inning it didn't look like he was going to be around very long to enjoy it.
Giorbis Duvergel led off the game with a walk, moved to second on a wild pitch, and scored on Michel Enriquez's double to right-center. Tiffee made the first of many key plays by scooping Brown's throw to first on a groundout by Yuliesky Gurriel, and then Alexander Malleta singled Enriquez over to third. Cahill proceeded to hit Frederich Cepeda with a pitch to load the bases with one out, and the game was on the verge of getting out of hand for the Americans.
Two hits, two walks, one hit batter, one wild pitch, one errant pickoff throw ... a nightmare start for Cahill.
Despaigne then smoked a comebacker, and if Cahill handled it cleanly, it would have been a 1-2-3 double play to end the inning. But he bobbled it and had to settle for getting one out at home. With the bases still loaded, Cahill struck out Ariel Pestona.
The next inning was 1-2-3 for Cahill, a relief to his teammates, who were mostly baffled early on by the Fleetwood Mac pitching of Luis Rodriguez. He was living in the 70s and 80s -- he never topped 87 mph, mystifyingly effective.
Tiffee was the one U.S. player who was on fire. He played a huge role against Cuba. Tiffee doubled in the first inning and was safe at second with a textbook hook slide, but was stranded there. Then he doubled again to start the fourth. At that point, Tiffee had stroked five doubles in six at-bats going back to the previous 7-0 victory against the Netherlands. This time, his leadoff double in the fourth counted.
After a foul pop to third by Brown, Nate Schierholtz doubled to right-center and cut Cuba's lead to 2-1. Matt La Porta, having one of those classic good day-bad day moments, followed up his three-homer performance against the Netherlands by being rung up for one of his four strikeouts against Cuba. That brought up John Gall, and after a wild pitch moved Schierholtz over to third, Gall lofted a shallow fly down the left field line and it dropped in front of the slow-footed Cepeda for a double.
Suddenly it was 2-2 on a day when it looked like it could be really bad news for the Americans.
"Cahill struggled a little out of the gate, but he did well with damage control," Tiffee said. "I just go out and play the game hard. The first baseman's supposed to pick the ball up, that's what you're supposed to do. The little things."
The score stayed at 2-2 until the eighth, when Despaigne and Nix traded their homers. Neither team scored in the 10th, and the new rule specifies that for the 11th inning, each manager must "re-start" his lineup. That entails putting runners on first and second, and the leadoff man must be the person in the lineup who follows whomever the manager puts on first.
Cuba did it effectively, making regular leadoff man Duvergel its first batter in the 11th. He immediately moved the runners over with a sacrifice bunt to third, and then Enriquez powered a two-run double to right for a 5-3 Cuba lead. After a walk to Gourriel, U.S. reliever Jeff Stevens escaped further damage with a 4-6-3 double play.
The Americans' next game, against Canada, is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. local time on Saturday, and not having Nix could be significant for a team that faces a very real threat of not making the cutdown from eight to four semifinal teams.
Japan awaits as each team plays each other once, and that means that if the Americans lose to Japan, at best they would be 4-3, which is hardly a lock for advancing. They are in must-win mode all the way now.
"The doctor said there was a lot of blood -- in the eye and outside the eye," Johnson said. When asked if stitches are needed, Johnson said he had "no idea."
"Mr. Nix sustained a laceration to the left upper eyebrow," said Dr. William Kuprevich, chief medical officer of the U.S. Olympic team. "His injury was evaluated with a CAT scan and a detailed eye exam. The laceration was repaired and he was treated with eye drops and rest. He will not return to play during the Games."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.