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U.S. pitcher flirts with no-hitter in win

U.S. pitcher flirts with no-hitter in win

BEIJING -- Stephen Strasburg flirted with a no-hitter and pitched seven scoreless innings, Matt LaPorta hit a three-run homer, and the United States rebounded with a 7-0 rout of The Netherlands on Thursday in an Olympic contest that featured an ending that literally could mean a medal or not.

Rain plagued the game at Wukesong Field 2 after Strasburg left a one-hit masterpiece following the seventh. There were two rain delays each lasting at least 90 minutes, and the game was called off after eight innings following the second wait.

The Dutch protested the decision because they had loaded the bases in the ninth inning with no outs against reliever Blaine Neal. They had lost their opener against Chinese Taipei, 10-0, and desperately needed to put up some runs. The protest was denied by baseball's international federation.

Run differential could be vitally important, because that is a tiebreaker criteria when it comes time to narrow the field from eight teams to four for the semifinals. Teams will be ranked by won-lost record, and the first tiebreaker, if needed, would be head-to-head. If there is at least a three-way tie, the criteria would be run differential, so it is crucial for teams to score as many runs as possible and hold its opponents to as few as possible.

The Americans, who lost a thrilling opener against Korea on Wednesday night, will face traditional powerhouse and reigning gold medalist Cuba in the main field at 11:30 a.m. local time on Friday.

Strasburg, a junior-to-be at San Diego State and a projected high pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, is the only member of the U.S. roster who is not with a Major League organization. If there was any doubt that he is a prime candidate to be the No. 1 overall selection next year, it was removed as he dominated on the international stage.

The right-hander made a statement right away by striking out the side in the top of the first. Then in the second, following a groundout by Sharnol Adriana, Strasburg got Sidney de Jong and Raily Legito to make it five of the first six Netherlands batters to be retired by strikeout.

Meanwhile, Strasburg got the support he needed from Matt Brown. Brown led off the second with a rocket shot over the left field wall, one that rolled all the way to shortstop on the adjacent practice field, stopping about 500 feet away.

Strasburg cruised through the third, retiring Bryan Engelhardt on a groundout to third, striking out Roel Koolen and inducing Danny Rombley into a comebacker. Strasburg struck out two more in the fourth, but the perfect game was lost with one out in the fifth, when Strasburg walked deJong. He proceeded to get Legito looking, and then Engelhardt flied out to keep the no-hitter intact.

It survived until there were two out in the seventh, when Adriana broke through by slapping a clean single to right just as heavy storm clouds rolled in. Strasburg responded by whiffing deJong to end the inning and his outing.

"I went out and tried to locate my fastball down, and move it inside and outside and set up my slider. I was able to do that effectively. I just went out there and tried to compete and keep my team in the ballgame," said Strasburg, whose next start could be on Tuesday night against Chinese Taipei -- depending on how he feels, according to manager Davey Johnson.

The 11 strikeouts were the third-most by a U.S. pitcher in Olympic history. B.J. Wallace had 14 in 1992 and Jon Rauch struck out 13 in 2000, the year the Americans won the gold.

"It was a long day out there," Johnson said. "My guys really played good after a late night. We came back and played real well. Mr. Strasburg did an outstanding job. We were able to get him a lead and allow him to work."

LaPorta, the key player acquired by the Indians in last month's CC Sabathia deal with Milwaukee, provided the comfort zone by clubbing a three-run homer in the fourth. That made it 4-0, and John Gall -- 0-for-5 the night before -- doubled and scored an out later on a double by Jason Donald, the Phillies' Triple-A shortstop.

"The last day has been a roller-coaster ride," LaPorta said. "Against Korea we played a great game, didn't come out on top against them, and we knew The Netherlands would be playing us well. The way Steve was really dealing out there, we knew if we could get runs for him early it would be a benefit."

The U.S. team has not lacked for offense. One slight concern might be at the top of the order, where the leadoff spot is a combined 0-for-10. Gall and Dexter Fowler each went 0-for-5 in that spot, though Fowler did drive in a run with an eighth-inning groundout. And since Jayson Nix's leadoff double in the first game, the No. 2 hole is 0-for-9.

Murray Cook, field operations manager for these Games and MLB's head groundskeeping consultant, said during the second wait that 90 minutes was the "guideline" before a delay would turn into a final. Robert Eenhoorn, The Netherlands manager and infielder on the 1996 world champion Yankees, explained afterward that the International Baseball Federation technical committee never had made that point known in advance, and so he pushed the matter as far as possible.

"Strasburg threw a tremendous game," he said. "We really didn't have a chance -- he had command over all of his pitches. He got the excitement out of the game for us. It felt like there wasn't much to get today.

"Overall, the USA deserved to win. It's just a strange end to the game. That's the only thing I don't feel great about."

The baseball competition will run until the Aug. 22 semifinals followed by the medal games the following day. The Closing Ceremony will be on Aug. 24.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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