Aussies to face Cuba for title

Updated: August 24, 2004, 5:05 PM ET
Associated Press

RESULTS: Australia 1, Japan 0 | Cuba 8, Canada 5

ATHENS, Greece -- Brendan Kingman's sixth-inning single sent Australia to a stunning 1-0 victory Tuesday over Japan, putting the Aussies into the gold-medal game against Cuba.

The Cubans escaped another upset bid, scoring six runs in the eighth and then holding off a ninth-inning threat to beat Canada, 8-5.

The Australians and Cubans play Wednesday after Japan faces Canada for the bronze.

A group of career minor leaguers led the Aussies to their biggest victory in international play. Australia failed to reach the medal round during the 2000 Sydney Games.

"It's very important for the program in Australia," manager Jon Deeble said. "We were very disappointed after the Sydney Olympics. The day after the Sydney Olympics, we put a plan in place to win the gold medal in Athens."

So far, some career minor leaguers have things going according to plan.

Kingman, a stocky first baseman whose minor league career included stints in the Florida Marlins and Seattle Mariners, provided the decisive two-out hit in a game that came down to one swing.

Kingman, 31, singled sharply to right field off right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, who led Japan to its biggest Olympic win earlier in the tournament -- a 6-3 victory over Cuba in the preliminaries. This time, Japan's all-pro lineup froze up.

Right-hander Chris Oxspring gave up five hits and struck out five in 6 2-3 innings. Oxspring, 27, pitched out of the bullpen for San Diego's Triple-A Portland Beavers before heading for Athens.

"It's the best day of my life and I'm sure everyone in the dugout felt the same," Oxspring said. "It's very important for us, but more important for Australian baseball."

Japan's best threat came in the bottom of the seventh, when Oxspring retired the first two batters. A pair of errors put runners on first and third, but right-hander Jeff Williams retired Atsushi Fujimoto on a popup.

Japan didn't get a hit the rest of the way off Williams, 32, who appeared in 37 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers before signing with Japan's Hanshin Tigers last year.

The Aussie pitchers have one big advantage in the tournament -- experienced major league catcher Dave Nilsson is behind the plate.

Determined to reach the gold medal game, Japan sent a roster loaded with players from its pro leagues. Instead, it got the same disappointing result.

Japan sent a mix-and-match roster of pros and college players to Sydney, where it lost to Cuba in the semifinals and then to South Korea in the bronze medal game. The best it can hope for this time is bronze.

"We had only one week to prepare before coming to Athens, but we can't make it as an excuse," manager Kiyoshi Nakahata said.

Cuba 8, Canada 5

Cuba's victory wasn't safe until left fielder Frederich Cepeda caught a fly by Kevin Nicholson at the wall. The Canadians scored two runs in the top of the ninth and had runners on second and third when it ended.

Ryan Radmanovich homered off reliever Pedro Luis Lazo leading off the ninth. Todd Betts singled and scored on a passed ball by Cuban catcher Ariel Pestano, pulling the Canadians to 8-5 with two outs.

Reliever Danny Betancourt went 3 1/3 innings for the win, allowing two runs on two hits with three strikeouts and one walk. Starter Adiel Palma was chased in the fifth after giving up two runs as the Canadians took a 3-2 lead.

Pestano and Eduardo Paret each drove in two runs for Cuba, which has won 19 straight world titles and Olympic gold medals in 1992 at Barcelona and 1996 at Atlanta. The Cubans were favored again in Athens after the United States failed to qualify.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press