Nothing in this Pan American Games baseball tournament has come easily for the U.S. team. So it was fitting that the United States had to battle for 10 innings tonight to beat Mexico, 2-1, and secure a berth in the 2000 Olympics.
The United States celebrated on the field after reliever Dan Wheeler struck out Hector Alvarez to end the game in front of 6,628 at CanWest Global Park. The United States will face Cuba, a 3-2 winner over Canada earlier today, in the gold-medal game on Monday. Baseball has been an Olympic sport since 1992; the Americans have played in both Olympics, but the Cubans have won both gold medals.
Canada and Mexico will meet in the bronze-medal game on Monday afternoon.
The United States scored the game-winning run in the top of the 10th. Catcher Marcus Jensen, who hit two home runs the previous time these teams met, doubled with one out. Pinch hitter Mike Neill delivered a bloop single -- which he hit off the handle of his bat -- to drive in pinch runner Shawn Gilbert.
Neill pumped his fist as he headed to first base. "It was huge. I knew I just got enough of it to get the run home. And I knew that with the way Wheeler had been pitching, the game was over."
Wheeler pitched four scoreless innings in relief of starter Mark Mulder to earn the win. He didn't give up a hit and struck out five.
The Cubans also celebrated after the final out of their game, bringing a Cuban flag onto the field. The flag was used earlier to subdue a protester who bolted from the stands onto the field after the first out of the ninth inning.
The Cuban players who were in the dugout ran onto the field after the protester, who was carrying a sign that read, "Human rights first," and attempted to wrap him in the flag. The protester was led off the field, but not before he was hit in the face by one of the players.
Earlier this year, when the Cubans beat the Baltimore Orioles in an exhibition at Camden Yards, a protester ran onto the field before he was tackled by a Cuban umpire.
Cuba needed only one swing of the bat in the third inning tonight to get all the runs it needed -- a three-run home run by third baseman Omar Linares that erased a 2-0 Canadian lead.
Reliever Jose Ibar went 5 1/3 scoreless innings, yielding two hits and striking out five. Ibar left the game with one out in the ninth, after giving up a single to Todd Betts and a walk to Ryan Radmanovich. Luis Lazo, who threw three scoreless innings against the Dominican Republic, entered the game and struck out the final two batters.
"They pitched a lot better today," said Lee Delfino, Canada's 19-year-old shortstop. Canada beat Cuba 8-1 (outhitting Cuba 14-4) earlier in the tournament. "That second pitcher [Ibar] -- he threw a couple of pitches I had never seen before. I'm not as experienced as some of the other guys out there, but those pitches were nasty. That was the difference today."
The Americans also faced good pitching today in the form of Mexican starter Cesar Alvarez.
Alvarez, a portly right-hander who pitches for a minor league team in Mexico City, baffled the Americans for 7 2/3 innings. When Eduardo Neri relieved him in the eighth inning with two outs and runners on first and second, Alvarez had given up only three hits and struck out 10. As he walked off the field, he waved his hat at the crowd, which gave him a standing ovation.
The Americans wasted a chance to get to Alvarez early, when Craig Paquette tried to score from first base on Milton Bradley's double in the second. The relay throw from shortstop Benji Gil easily beat Paquette to the plate.
Bradley's double was the only hit the United States managed until the sixth, when Adam Kennedy singled to right field to score Peter Bergeron and tie the game at 1.
Entering the 10th inning, the United States had only three hits. But the Americans got key hits from Jensen and Neill when they needed them.
Neill, a 29-year-old outfielder with the Oakland Athletics' Class AAA team, was the unlikely hero. He was originally named to be an alternate with the team but was added to the roster two weeks ago when Lance Berkman was called up to the Houston Astros. Just being named to the team was something of an achievement for Neill. In 1993, he underwent major shoulder surgery on his left (throwing) shoulder and it essentially took him two years to recover. Last year, he was called up to Oakland and played in six games.
"I overcame a lot, so making it to the big leagues last year was a major accomplishment," Neill said. "But that was an individual thing. This is for the team, and we're trying to get the USA into the Olympics. You're playing for your country."
Neill had one hit -- a double against Brazil -- in five at-bats in the tournament before tonight. He told U.S. Manager Buddy Bell earlier in the week that he didn't mind coming off the bench to be a pinch hitter in the late innings.
"I believe in my ability. I know my role on the team is to come off the bench," Neill said. "I'm not going to be an everyday starter in the big leagues, but hopefully I can show people that I can succeed in this role, coming off the bench."