SYDNEY - One of the reasons Tommy Lasorda agreed to manage the United States Olympic baseball team was to get back some of the excitement he has missed since retiring.
But the 72-year-old didn't need this much.
Lasorda watched his U.S. team blow a lead in the ninth inning before winning the longest baseball game in Olympic history Sunday, 3-2 over Japan in the opening round at the Showground Baseball Centre in Sydney's Olympic Park. Mike Neill hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the 13th inning to lift the Americans over a team that, like them, is considered a medal contender.
"You couldn't create a better picture than that,'' said Lasorda, whose team consists of top minor league prospects and former major leaguers. "It was a great, great game. The whole time, it felt like it was the seventh game of the playoffs against the New York Mets with (Orel) Hershiser on the mound.''
The dramatic home run, which sailed high over the wall in right field, also brought another comparison to Lasorda, who managed the Los Angeles Dodgers organization for 20 years, going to four World Series.
"I jumped in the air when Kirk Gibson hit the home run (to lead the Dodgers over the Oakland A's in the 1989 World Series) and I jumped in the air when this young man hit his,'' said Lasorda as he rubbed Neill's shoulder. "I've told people that this, to me, this is bigger than the World Series. It's bigger than the Dodgers and it's bigger than the Major Leagues. This is for the United States of America and, by golly, we didn't let them down today.''
Although the Americans did briefly let down their guard.
After getting seven strong innings from starter Ben Sheets, the U.S. took a 2-1 lead into the ninth. Japan's Nakamura Norihiro led off with a single and after a strikeout and a fly out, moved to second when Heima Jun hit a roller to third that Mike Kinkade couldn't make a play on and wisely did not throw the ball. Suzuki Fumihiro followed with an identical hit, but Kinkade made a different play.
The Baltimore Orioles' prospect made a barehanded scoop, but threw wild to first, allowing pinch-runner Nogami Osamu to score the tying run from second.
"That put a little fear in us,'' said Lasorda. "But our relief pitchers did a great job until we got the home run.''
While Japanese ace Matsuzaka Daisuke pitched 10 innings, throwing an estimated 150 pitches, the U.S. used five pitchers during the game.
And the last was as good as the first, with Ryan Franklin getting the win with four innings of hitless relief. He allowed just one walk and struck out three.
"I was just out there every inning until we won the game,'' said Franklin, a Seattle Mariners' farmhand. "It didn't matter if it was one or nine.''
It seemed for a while that the United States' first extra-inning game in Olympic competition might continue longer than it did.
After combining for just five hits through the first five innings, the teams also did not put much together offensively in the extra innings before the 13th. Japan managed only a walk in the 11th, while the U.S. had singles in the 10th and 11th, but neither runner advanced past first base.
Designated hitter John Cotton led off the 14th with a walk and moved to second when the ball got past the Japanese catcher on a two-and-two count. Kinkade hit the next pitch out of the park.
"I was looking for something I could pull and I was looking for a fastball and fortunately, I got both,'' said Kinkade, a 27-year-old who spent the season on the Mets' 25-man roster. Shoulder injuries have limited his progress through the minors and he considered retiring early this year until his father convinced him to reconsider. "I think I got caught up in the moment a little and I usually try not to do that. It was just an unbelievable feeling when I hit it and I knew it was out of the park.''
The bounce-back win kept intact America's hopes of returning to the top of the Olympic baseball field.
The U.S. has not won a gold medal in its national pastime since 1988 in Seoul, finishing out of the top three in 1992 and earning a bronze in Atlanta. The Americans are expected to contend for a medal in Sydney, but are considered an underdog to defending gold-medal winner Cuba, which opened play Sunday with a 16-0 win over South Africa.
But with one swing at the end of a long afternoon, the U.S. kept pace for at least one day.
"I feel like I just played the longest game in Olympic history,'' said U.S. second baseman Brent Abernathy. "We just hung in there. That's what we kept telling ourselves, keep getting on base and we'll get one big hit. That's what Mike gave us.''
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