INDIANAPOLIS, AUG. 22 -- Exactly what U.S. Coach Ron Fraser and his players feared most when they arrived at Bush Stadium before today's Pan American Games baseball climax -- that it would come down to the final two innings, he would call on unscored-upon Cris Carpenter, and the stopper's right arm would give out before he could save the Americans again -- came to pass. And Cuba won the gold medal, 13-9.

Fraser fretted it, the 10,351 frantic partisans here fretted it. The Cubans hoped for it. Sure enough, an arm-weary Carpenter -- after pitching eight innings in less than three days -- could not protect a one-run lead in the final two innings. Victor Mesa's two-run single in the eighth and some insurance runs in the ninth and that was it.

It was the fifth consecutive baseball gold medal at the Pan Ams for Cuba, and sweet payback for a 6-4 loss a week ago today. The U.S. had won all eight of its games in this competition and felt upbeat about breaking Cuba's 20-year stranglehold.

The Americans, as it turned out, had to settle for silver medals, the warm feeling of knowing they restored some of the respect to U.S. amateur baseball and a place in the 1988 Olympics.

For a while, it looked as if the young Americans would survive four Ruthian home runs by the Cubans and win their first Pan Am title since 1967. They took a 9-8 lead into the eighth, hoping Carpenter's tired arm could hold up.

"Cris just isn't the kind of kid who will say he can't," Fraser said. "He came over to me and said, 'Let me know if you need me and I'll give you my best.' And if we were going to get beat, we were going to get beat with our best."

Carpenter is easily the best the U.S. team has. The University of Georgia senior-to-be, once drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals, had struck out four of six Cuban batters in the sixth and seventh innings. And Carpenter, who had allowed not a run in 16 1/3 innings of relief before today, retired the first batter in the eighth.

But a routine ground ball to second baseman Ty Griffin, last week's home run hero in the victory over Cuba, went through him. "I came up and the ball stayed down," Griffin said. "I just misplayed it, a human error."

Alejo O'Reilly stroked a base hit to put runners on first and third, and a walk to Pedro Medina loaded the bases. Mesa, the hero so many times for Cuba in these Games, smacked a single to right to give Cuba a 10-9 lead.

The Cubans added three runs in the ninth, while Omar Ajete -- Cuba's fourth pitcher -- held the Americans scoreless on two hits the last four innings.

Fraser was asked if he could have used another pitcher and tried to save Carpenter for the seventh or eighth. "It was gambling," he said. "But I felt we had to get our best guy in there as quick as we could."

Carpenter added: "I felt fine in the sixth and seventh, but I started getting wild in the eighth, getting the ball up. They were just waiting for me to get tired and jump on me."

But this was not a day for second-guessing or laying blame, just a day of A+ baseball, full of blasts, hit-and-runs, stolen bases, marvelous defensive plays and old fashioned, two-out-in-the-ninth drama.

"This was the biggest ball game of their lives today," Fraser said. "Our first goal was to make sure the U.S. team qualified for a spot in the Olympics and our grandiose goal was to win the gold here . . . Boy, we had them on the ropes for a while."

Twice, actually.

The United States scored two runs in the first on three walks and two errors. Cuba Coach Higino Velez yanked phenom Pablo Abreu after the third walk, which kept the Americans from blowing open a big lead.

Then, a one-hour rain delay and some good relief pitching by Jorge Valdes got Cuba off the hook. "I think the rain delay was a major factor," Griffin said.

U.S. starter Gregg Olson wasn't the same after the long delay, and neither was the wind, which gusted to 30 mph. The Cubans popped him for five runs in the third, including back-to-back monster shots by Orestes Kindelan and Luis Casanova.

Trailing, 5-2, the Americans came back with a run in the third and their own five-run rally in the fourth. Griffin's two-run, game-tying double keyed the rally, which ended with the United States ahead, 8-5.

The Cubans came back to tie, 8-8, by hitting two more dream home runs in the fifth. Omar Linares, the 20-year-old third baseman considered by many the best prospect in the world, hit a two-run shot to center field that would have been a home run in old Yankee Stadium. One out later, Casanova -- known 10 years ago as "The Next Robert Clemente" -- hit one that made the drives in "The Natural" look like pop flies.

The United States took brief control again in the fifth when Stanford's Ed Sprague hit a solo homer for 9-8. A last hurrah.

"We were really hyped up last week after winning, and we're really down right now," Griffin said. "But we knew how good they are, and we know there's always tomorrow."