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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

For the U.S. Olympic baseball team, the past is filled with mostly humbling defeats and the future is even more bleak -- as baseball was voted out as an Olympic sport beginning with the 2012 Games, with its chances at reinstatement unclear. That raises the stakes for 2008, which could be the last chance for the United States to reassert its might in its national pastime.

After its stunning failure to qualify for the 2004 Summer Games in Athens -- which some believe spurred the IOC to drop baseball as an Olympic sport -- USA Baseball turned to Davey Johnson, who won five division titles and one World Series championship during a 14-year managerial career, to pilot the team.

Johnson's roster is full of top minor league players -- some of whom were added as replacements in the weeks leading up to the Games, as major league teams called up prospects and sent others down -- and one intriguing college pitcher, 20-year-old right-hander Stephen Strasburg of San Diego State.

The Americans' offense is expected to be led by outfielder Matt LaPorta, above, whom the Milwaukee Brewers recently sent to the Cleveland Indians in a trade for ace lefty CC Sabathia. Center fielder Colby Rasmus, the top prospect of the St. Louis Cardinals, had to be dropped from the roster because of an injury.

Cuba, which has won three of the four gold medals since baseball became a medal sport in 1992 -- the lone exception being 2000, when current Brewers ace Ben Sheets threw a three-hitter to beat the Cubans in the title game -- will once again enter as the favorite, along with Japan, whose roster is made up entirely of top-level professionals, including seven players who were on the 2006 national team that won the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

Sleeper? Try Canada, whose roster is dotted with ex-major leaguers and talented minor leaguers, including catcher Brett Lawrie, the Brewers' recent No. 1 draft pick.

-- Dave Sheinin

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