TEAM USA SET TO MAKE ITS MARK IN HAVANA
August 24, 2006
by Zach McCann / Special to MLB.com

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  • The past five games have been a promising sign for the United States.

    The Americans went 4-1 in five exhibition games against Puerto Rico and Canada. Along the way, the U.S. outscored their opponents 40-14 and shortened two games against Puerto Rico because they were up by more than 10 runs.

    As the players and coaches boarded a plane Thursday, they hoped to take that momentum with them into Havana, Cuba, for the COPABE Olympic Qualifying Tournament Aug. 25-Sept. 5.

    "I think our chances are great," Team USA's Bryan LaHair said. "We've got some great arms and we've got some great bats. If we put those two together for the next nine games we can do it."

    Most of these guys just met, making the performance even more impressive. The U.S. team, made up of minor leaguers from across the country, congregated for the first time last Thursday for its only practice. The next day, they beat Puerto Rico 6-1.

    LaHair knocked three homers over the last week, while Mike Kinkade and Chad Allen hit two each.

    Overall the offense was superb, but Team USA struggled more against Canada's pitching staff, which is deeper and more talented than Puerto Rico's. Against Canada, the U.S. scored seven runs in two games and lost their only game, 6-3, on Wednesday.

    Hitting Canada's pitching is something the U.S. will need to do. Canada is the U.S.'s first opponent on Friday at 9 p.m.

    "Canada is always a tough team," U.S. manager Davey Johnson said. "They've got great pitching."

    The confirmed teams in America's group are Canada, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Brazil, and a team to be named later. The top four teams from each group will advance into the elimination round.

    Johnson thinks his team's toughest opponents will be Canada and 2004 gold medal-winning Cuba, who Team USA won't play unless they advance on to the elimination round.

    Up in the air
    The U.S. still doesn't know who their third opponent will be. Aruba dropped out of the tournament, leaving a void that has the U.S. doesn't know who will fill.

    The unknown opponent is tough on Johnson, who likes to match up his pitchers' strengths with his opponents' weaknesses.

    "I'm not sure who will throw because I don't know who the opponent will be," he said. "I do have an idea of who will throw in the first two games."

    Heath Phillips is expected to start Team USA's first game against Canada.

    Revenge?
    The U.S. didn't qualify for the 2004 Olympics, which was a shock to Johnson, America, and the rest of the world.

    "We as Americans invented the game, so we should be the strongest," Johnson said. "But the other teams across the world have really narrowed the gap."

    So are the current Team USA members thinking about the previous American team not qualifying?

    "Not at all," he said. "It's not anywhere on our minds. We're just focused on what we have to do now."

    Champion confident in pitching
    U.S. pitching coach Kirk Champion likes what he's seen out of the pitching.

    "These guys are all focused," Champion said. "All of their stats preceded them, so we knew what we were getting. All of these guys know what they have to do. They're pros."

    The staff combined for a 3.23 ERA against Puerto Rico and Canada.

    Representing the flag
    Playing for Team USA is a time for players and coaches to reflect their patriotism in the sport they love and play every day.

    "It's all about what's on the front of our jerseys, that's the most important thing," LaHair said.

    Shortstop Brandon Wood will likely never join the army, so playing baseball is an outlet to show his love of America.

    "I think about the guys overseas, the guys fighting for us," Wood said. "If we can play our hardest baseball, it's a small way to show how much we care."

    Bourn bounces around
    U.S. outfielder Michael Bourn was called up to the majors to fill the void left by the Philadelphia Phillies' Aaron Rowland, who broke his ankle on Monday. But the Phillies then acquired Jose Hernandez from the Pirates to take up Bourn's spot.

    Bourn met up with the U.S. team in Miami and will now play in Cuba. He hasn't played since Team USA's 16-5 win over Puerto Rico.