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A big shot leads U.S. to victory

By Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 18, 2000


SYDNEY, Australia -- The no-names, baseball lifers and raw prospects culled from the U.S. minor leagues for this tournament took a giant step toward respect, recognition, and maybe, just maybe, a gold medal showdown with Cuba.

Mike Neill, a 30-year-old journeyman third baseman/outfielder, hit a two-run homer with nobody out in the bottom of the 13th inning to give the United States a 4-2 victory over Japan as the tournament opened Sunday.

"He's my hero," manager Tom Lasorda said. "That's just what we needed."

Neill ended the longest game since baseball became a medal sport at the 1992 Games.

"This is my biggest home run so far," said Neill, who stayed at the plate to admire it before putting his head down and circling the bases. "I had to take my time. There haven't been too many game-winning home runs in the Olympics."

Neill had his second big day as a U.S. player. He singled home the run last summer that beat Mexico in the 10th inning for the Pan Am Games silver medal. If the United States had lost, it would not have made the Olympics.

"I felt there was more pressure there because we were trying to get here," Neill said.

The United States was in position to beat Japan after it went up 2-0 in the seventh. Tripling to start the inning was John Cotton, who turns 30 next month and is another player who has bounced from one team to another, none of them in the majors.

"If I don't make it to the major leagues ever, this is my major leagues now," Cotton said.

Ben Sheets, a prospect in the Milwaukee Brewers system, pitched seven scoreless innings, but Japan scored on a triple and an infield out as soon as he was replaced by Shane Heams. Devil Rays prospect Bobby Seay got the United States out of the inning without another run being scored.

In the ninth, with Todd Williams pitching, Japan tied the score with two outs when third baseman Mike Kinkade fielded the ball bare-handed on a hit and threw wildly past first base.

Rays prospect Brent Abernathy played second base and was 2-for-6.

Japan used two pitchers, compared with the Americans' five. The starter was Daisuke Matsuzaka, the hottest young pitcher in the country, who worked the first 10 innings.

"He was throwing well, and we were hoping he would throw a few more innings," Neill said.

Said Rays minor-leaguer Pat Borders, who caught in two World Series victories with Toronto but did not play Sunday, "It showed how much they wanted to win."

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