The United States baseball team's dream of the last Olympic gold medal for at least eight years died on Wukesong Main Field on Friday night, where Cuba (7-1) feasted on breaking balls that hung like the big moon over China, and smashed four home runs in a 10-2 victory that set up a gold medal game with unbeaten Korea (8-0).
The U.S. (5-3) will meet Japan (4-4), the loser of Friday's earlier semifinal against Korea, in the bronze medal game starting at 10:30 p.m. ET Friday. Cuba and Korea will play at 6 a.m. ET Saturday for gold and silver.
This semifinal was close most of the way, but Cuba always had an answer for any U.S. noise and then it busted the game open with a six-run eighth. That inning featured a pair of three-run homers, from Alexei Bell and Ariel Pestano. Six consecutive batters all stepped on home plate, solidifying Cuba's reputation as an international powerhouse.
Of the four gold medals handed out in Olympic baseball competition, Cuba has three. The only other one was won by the U.S. in 2000 at Sydney, and just when it looked like this collection of Minor Leaguers (with the exception of starting pitcher and San Diego State junior Stephen Strasburg) might have the mettle to get to the gold medal game, it seemed outmatched by sheer talent.
The U.S. has a 5-3 overall record. After the bronze medal game against Japan, everyone but Strasburg will head back to their parent organization, and the dream of that gold medal once again is replaced by the dream of being a Major Leaguer. Some will be up when rosters expand Sept. 1.
"You can't be that disappointed when you get beaten by a good club," said U.S. first baseman Terry Tiffee, who will go back to the Dodgers' Triple-A club in Las Vegas. "We just come out (Saturday) and have a shot at bronze. We have a solid team, we had a little bump in the road as far as swinging the bat."
"I've been with these guys almost a month now," said infielder Brian Barden, who will fly back to Washington on Sunday with his U.S. teammates, then head straight for the Cardinals' Triple-A Memphis affiliate. "It definitely has been a great experience. You wish it wouldn't end. It's been a great honor to play alongside these guys. But I didn't even think about bronze or silver. I came here with intentions of winning the gold."
That sentiment was widely shared by the U.S. team. These guys just weren't good enough against Cuba -- not on this night, at least.
"(Friday's) game proved that we're a really good team," Bell said of Cuba, which beat the U.S. both times they played in these Games. "The USA is strong and we played well. It's good to win against the USA and we're very happy to be in the final."
Cuba was unfazed by the phenom buzz -- and 97-mph heat -- that distinguished Strasburg. He had struck out 11 and allowed only one hit in seven scoreless innings for an Aug. 14 victory against the Netherlands, and he was held back for his second Olympic start in this big test. Not surprisingly, Cuba represented a far bigger challenge than the Netherlands. Like night and day, in fact.
Cuba led all teams with a .300 average in the preliminaries, and began testing Strasburg early. He worked out of trouble in the second, striking out Pestano with runners at the corners to end the inning. In the third, Cuba broke through as Giorbis Duvergel singled and scored on a triple to right-center by Hector Olivera. It got worse for the U.S. on that play, because the relay short-hopped Mike Hessman at third and got past him, allowing Olivera to come home for a 2-0 Cuba lead.
The U.S. got one of those right back when Brian Barden led off the fourth with a single, moving to second on a Nate Schierholtz hit, advancing with Schierholtz on a Terry Tiffee groundout, and then scoring on Matt Brown's sacrifice fly to left. Cepeda's throw home was weak and Barden's hook slide made it 2-1.
Despite a stretch of three consecutive strikeouts by Strasburg, Cuba was just too hard to contain. Despaigne had hit a solo homer in the eighth inning of the team's previous meeting, and he did it again with two out in the fourth to build the Cuba lead back to 3-1. Pestano ground out to first to end the inning, and that would be it for the U.S. starter. Not bad, not great, and despite good velocity, manager Davey Johnson appeared to be taking no chances with a young arm as he brought in Brian Duensing to start the fifth.
"He had 75 pitches after four, and we had a long fourth," Johnson explained. "He's got too good a future, I didn't want him to labor too long today."
U.S. catcher Lou Marson, a rare bright spot for the U.S. team on this night, said Strasburg "was great out of the windup, but out of the stretch he was trying to be a little too quick. He pitched well. He's going to be a great pitcher. He picks when he wants to, he slide-steps, he's got it all. Whoever gets to pick him in the next Draft is going to get a good player."
By the time Strasburg was replaced with Duensing, the Twins' prospect, Team USA had cut the deficit to 3-2. Marson and Jason Donald had back-to-back doubles in the fifth, and the former might have caught Cuba by surprise when he speeded around the third and beat Duvergel's slightly off-line throw home.
Each time the U.S. did anything positive, it seemed that Cuba had an answer. Cepeda blasted a solo homer to left-center off Duensing in the sixth, making it 4-2.
Neither Jayson Nix nor Matt LaPorta was in the starting lineup, despite expectations that they would each be available. Nix was struck above the left eye while trying to bunt on Pedro Luis Lazo in the first Cuba game, and has not played since. LaPorta was beaned and sustained a mild concussion against China game on Monday, and this was the third consecutive absence for the player considered the Americans' marquee name coming into this event. LaPorta, the key player acquired by the Indians in the deal that sent CC Sabathia to Milwaukee, hit a key three-run homer against the Netherlands but otherwise has gone hitless (0-for-14) in this tournament.
Johnson said Nix and LaPorta likely will play against Japan. He said neither player had complete medical clearance in time to make his own decision.
Mike Hessman had another 0-for-4 night, extending his final slump to 0-for-17 since a big homer in the ninth inning of the opener against Korea. He missed two games after that with a sore heel from running bases, and he will rejoin his Triple-A Toledo teammates in search of a much hotter bat than he swung here.
There was some discussion after the game about exactly how good Cuba would be if it played regularly in the U.S. professional ranks. It is a team that is mostly together year after year, made for international competitions.
"They'd be a solid team in Triple-A," said Tiffee, who should know as a Triple-A player. "They definitely wouldn't be a Major League club. I don't know if they could handle the grind of 162 games a season. They played solid baseball tonight against us, though, like they always do, and you tip your hat to them."
There was little time for the U.S. team to dwell on what happened on this night. They had to catch the bus back to the Athletes Village and then it's an early wakeup to come right back to Wukesong and face a strong Japan club.
"Our No. 1 goal right now is to take home the bronze," Strasburg said. "I think people need to know it's a popular sport, that it deserves to come back to the Olympics. It was a great opportunity to pitch on this stage and play with this group of guys. It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life."
"I'm obviously disappointed," John Gall said. "We have to prepare quickly since the game is in the morning. We'll get a power-sleep. We'll come out and we'll play good baseball. We have to hit better, we have to pitch better and we have to field better. We'll give it our best effort."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.