The Cuban players started preparing their celebration early in the ninth inning of tonight's Pan American Games baseball championship game against the United States. They stood on the dugout steps in a row, holding three Cuban flags, ready to rush onto the field when the game was over.

When reliever Maels Rodriguez struck out Jon Zuber to end the game, the Cubans stormed the field to celebrate a dominating 5-1 victory and their eighth consecutive Pan Am gold medal.

U.S. Manager Buddy Bell had said throughout the tournament that the goal was to win the gold medal. But tonight, he seemed satisfied with the silver -- the U.S. team's best Pan Am finish since 1987, when it also won the silver.

"This is the first time that a lot of these guys have been involved in anything like this," Bell said of his team, which consists mostly of young minor league players. "We put this team together in basically two to three weeks, and they came together better than we ever expected. We very easily could have won tonight; [Cuba] just got a great pitching performance."

Canada beat Mexico, 9-2, to win the bronze medal -- its best result ever at the Pan Am Games. The Canadians finished the tournament with the best record (6-1), but did not qualify for the Olympics. Canada's loss came at the worst possible time -- Cuba beat Canada, 3-2, in a semifinal on Sunday. Only the two tournament finalists earned invitations to Sydney.

Cuba starter Jose Contreras pitched eight innings, giving up four hits and two walks, and striking out 13. The 19-year-old Rodriguez pitched the ninth, striking out the side.

The powerfully built Contreras, who is considered to be the Cubans' number one starter, was one of the pitchers who faced the Baltimore Orioles in Havana. He dominated the major leaguers, striking out 10 in eight innings of relief in the Cubans' 3-2, 10-inning loss. He also started against the Orioles when the teams played in Baltimore.

The right-hander had been dominant in the tournament before tonight -- in 10 1/3 innings, he had given up one run on eight hits and struck out nine. Tonight, Contreras was pitching on one day's rest -- he was the winning pitcher in the Cubans' 3-1 quarterfinal win over the Dominican Republic on Saturday. In six innings in that game, he threw 88 pitches, struck out five, and yielded one run on six hits.

But as good as Contreras had been earlier in the tournament, he surpassed it tonight. At one point, he struck out eight consecutive batters -- seven swinging.

"You've got to tip your hat to him," said Zuber, a former major leaguer who was 0 for 4 with two strikeouts. "We knew that he wouldn't have his good fastball for the whole game, but he had his fastball for three innings. Then he went to the split-finger; he was locating his pitches, which is tough to do. We battled up there, but we were also swinging at some bad pitches."

The Americans scored their run in the fifth, when Milton Bradley doubled to center field and Marcus Jensen drove him home with a single to right.

The Cubans, who were batting just .239 with five home runs before tonight, hit three home runs that accounted for four runs. First baseman Orestes Kindelan, who was batting .125 with no home runs entering the game, hit a fourth-inning solo home run to left field off of starter Brad Penny. As Kindelan stood to admire his home run, Penny yelled at him.

Gabriel Pierre followed Kindelan with a home run to right field to make the score 2-0. Then, in the sixth inning, Kindelan hit his second home run, this one a two-run shot that cleared the bleachers in right field. The Cubans scored their sixth run in the eighth inning on Todd Williams's bases-loaded wild pitch.

"Our guys didn't pitch that bad," Bell said. Penny and four relievers gave up eight hits. "Kindelan is one of those guys who just gets locked in. He's like [Mark] McGwire -- when a power hitter gets locked in, he hits them out."

Cuba has won 10 Pan Am gold medals and the only two Olympic gold medals ever awarded (1992, 1996). The Americans have won the Pan Am gold medal once. That came in 1967 -- the last time the Cubans failed to win the gold and the last time the Games were held in Winnipeg.

The Cubans have had to fight distractions throughout the tournament -- most notably a protester who ran onto the field during the ninth inning of their 3-2 semifinal win over Canada -- as well as criticism that they had not played their best here. Cuba, which had not lost a Pan Am game since 1987, lost two games in pool play here by a combined score of 18-6.

Today, they had to deal with reports that one of their players defected -- agent Joe Cubas appeared with pitcher Danyso Baez on a Miami television station. Baez -- who was not one of the top pitchers on the team -- appeared in two games in the tournament, pitching a total of 2 1/3 innings, giving up two hits and striking out three.