Cuba has won three of the four gold medals in Olympics history, including the 2004 Games in Athens. The U.S. won the other medal in Sydney in 2000. Both are among the favorites in Beijing, and Cuba made an especially strong first showing with a 4-2 victory over Japan on Wednesday.
That game was a rematch of the 2006 World Baseball Classic final, won by Japan, and this time Cuba was facing the "next Daisuke Matsuzaka" in Japanese ace Yu Darvish. Undaunted, the Cubans touched him for a run in the second and third innings. Alexei Bell tripled and scored on Alfredo Despaigne's single in the second, and then it was a pair of familiar names in the third when Yuliesky Gurriel led off with a double, moved to third on an Alexander Malleta groundout and then scored on Frederich Cepeda's single.
Cepeda and Gurriel were two of the top hitters in the World Baseball Classic. Cuba has little turnover on its national team, so opponents are often familiar with it. That knowledge, however, seems to be of little help.
On Thursday, the U.S. players were leaving the rain-soaked field where they had just beaten the Netherlands, 7-0, while many of the Cuban players, including pitcher Pedro Luis Lazo, were kicked back with their eyes closed, following their late-night victory over Japan, as they awaited their night game against so-far-impressive Canada.
"I remember watching the World Baseball Classic and Cuba," said Cahill. "I was in high school then [in Vista, Calif.], but I was not thinking at the time that I was going to pitch against them one day."
Cahill started once since the U.S. team got together at the beginning of August -- the team's 7-2 victory over Canada in their four-game exhibition series in North Carolina -- before embarking on the Olympic trip. He said Taylor Teagarden, who was up with the Texas Rangers before the U.S. team was assembled, will be his catcher. Cahill was throwing "105 or 110" pitches per start in Double-A and said, "here, hopefully more."
Cahill is 11-5 with a 2.61 ERA this season, starting with Class A Stockton and then dominating the Texas League. He is 6-1 with a 2.19 ERA for Midland, and in one victory over Arkansas on the Fourth of July he was like fireworks to watch, striking out 10 and allowing no earned runs over eight innings.
Under normal circumstances, Cahill would be all about working his way up the A's chain and trying to make a name for himself in the pros. Right now, it is all about the stars and stripes, he said -- and trying to contain that vaunted Cuba lineup, which featured Girobis Duvergel in the leadoff spot against Japan's righty. The U.S. will face Cuba on the Wukesong Main Field, after playing two games on Field 2.
"I just come into something like this thinking that you win as a team," Cahill said, when asked what it's been like to deviate from the intense focus of trying to be a Major Leaguer. "We're not playing for anything else other than winning. I could care less if it's an error or a hit on an individual play, little things. Our objective is to win. There are so many games in the Minors, everyone's going to lose some days. Here, you almost have to win every day, or at least it feels that way."
Cahill said he has seen the U.S. "kind of come together as a team," and especially after what happened in the opener here on Wednesday, when the Americans rallied to take a lead against Korea in the top of the ninth and then lost the game, 8-7, on a miscommunication play and subsequent walk-off sacrifice fly.
"It's good we came out strong against the Netherlands," Cahill said. "Now we need to beat Cuba."