Cuba 8, Japan 7, 10 innings
ATLANTA (AP) _ Facing an historic loss, the Big Red Machine of amateur baseball pulled off one of its greatest comebacks.
Cuba blew an early five-run lead Sunday night, fell behind a run in the top of the 10th, then rallied in the bottom of the inning for an 8-7 victory over Japan.
``That’s one of the best games we’ve played in the last years,″ Cuban coach Jorge Fuentes said. ``I had a lot of emotions in it.″
The Cubans won the game but lost their invincibility after rolling to a 6-1 lead in the second. Their pitchers hit four batters and got a 521-foot homer from Orestes Kindelan, but couldn’t put Japan away.
When Omar Ajete, one of Cuba’s top pitchers, gave up a run in the top of the 10th on a double-play grounder, the crowd at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium stood and cheered the upset in the making.
But Cuba wound up holding the postgame celebration a few minutes later. Rey Isaac led off with a double off Masao Morinaka, Omar Linares singled him home, and Kindelan drew a walk from reliever Masahiko Mori.
Miguel Caldes slapped a single through the right side to score Linares easily and preserve Cuba’s unbeaten record in the Olympics. Cuba won the gold in Barcelona by going 9-0, the first time baseball was an official sport.
The Cubans also boast that their No. 1 team has not lost in a major international competition since the Pan American Games in 1987. Fuentes puts their unbeaten streak at 136 games.
Kindelan said the streak means little to him. He also said he wasn’t surprised Japan nearly ended it.
``We know all of the games are going to be difficult, because they (opponents) are very well-prepared,″ he said. ``It’s no surprise.″
Heading into the tournament, Cuba was considered a heavy favorite, even though defections have depleted the deep pool of talent. Japan and the United States were considered the two closest challengers.
It looked like a mismatch at the outset. Kindelan hit his third homer in two games as the Cubans went up 6-1 after two innings and intimidated along the way.
Pedro Luis Lazo, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound right-hander who throws a 90 mph fastball, hit Takayuki Takabayashi in the left shoulder with his first pitch. The next batter, Yasuyuki Saigo, took a breaking ball off his kneecap.
Whether intentional or by accident, the inside pitches worked. The Japanese began swinging weakly at Lazo’s fastball and biting slider, which he used to strike out eight through five innings. The only hits were solo homers by Tomoaki Sato and Kosuke Fukudome.
The Cubans did a little intimidating with their bats as well, knocking starter Hitoshi Ono out of the game after just four outs. The biggest hit came from Kindelan, who lined a below-the-knees pitch into the second deck in center field, a shot estimated at 521 feet.
With the majority of the crowd at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium cheering them on, the Japanese batted around for four runs to tie it 6-6 in the sixth.
Hideaki Okubo and Takao Kuwamoto had RBI singles, and Fukudome’s bad-hop grounder up the middle bounced over second baseman Antonio Pacheco’s head for what was ruled an error, letting in the tying runs.