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Anything can happen, but Cuba is the favorite
One could think that based on past performance the baseball competition of the 15th Pan American Games should be a walk for Cuba: Eleven titles in 13 tournaments including nine consecutive since the 1971 Cali Games, and six times undefeated.

However, the times are different, above all since Winnipeg 1999, when professional players were allowed to play and the aluminum bat was no longer used. The rivals are different, better prepared, with more skills, and all wanting to beat the champ.
This will be an atypical tournament with only eight teams divided into two groups of four. The teams play only three games in their group during the qualifying round followed by a one game semifinal with the top teams of each group playing the other groups second place finisher. The winners play a one-game showdown for the gold medal. Only five games in all for the teams that reach the finals, and in such a short tournament anything can happen.

The tournament could well have included games with all eight teams playing each other and a final among the top two teams. The players spent hard weeks training and more games would have been more fitting for such an important international event.

But thats how the rules were set. Cuba opens in Group A with rivals Panama, Mexico and Venezuela. Group B includes the United States, Dominican Republic, Brazil and Nicaragua.

PANAMA: arrived in Rio with the same players as the 2nd ALBA games earlier this year in Venezuela. The Panamanian press announced weeks ago with fanfare that pitcher Lenin Picota was on the team. However, the 37-year-old right-hander was recently released from the Rieleros de Aguascalientes in the Mexican League after going 1-2 with a 6.40 ERA, leaving a serious doubt of his current effectiveness. It appears he is not the same pitcher who had an excellent fork ball and a 90 MPH fastball. Panama debuts against Cuba and left-hander Abraham Atencio is considered a possible starter. Panama will be fighting for a semifinal slot but it wont be easy.

VENEZUELA: played a series of tune-up games in Cuba winning one and losing six. A standout on the team is lefthander Ricardo Palma, who was on the Venezuelan team during the World Baseball Classic along with stars Johan Santana and Freddy Garcia (not present in Rio). Infielder Liu Rodriguez, who played in 1999 with the Chicago White Sox is also on the team for the Pan American Games. Manager Henry Campos has said more than once that his team will be battling for the gold medal. The optimism is welcome, although the hope may be a little too ambitious.

MEXICO: For a good while now the Mexicans have been using players from their summer professional league "considered on the par with the Triple A Major Leagues since the mid-1970s on their teams for international events. In fact, four ex-Major Leaguers and a pitching staff headed by Francisco Campos (who beat Cuba in the Santo Domingo 2003 Pan Am Games) are their best credentials. The drawbacks? The enormous pressure from the press and the fans, which wont accept anything short of a tournament victory, and the inexperience of manager Vinicio "Vinny" Castilla, in his first time leading Mexico in such an event. Traditionally the Mexicans play well against Cuba and should make it into the semifinals. Then we will see.

UNITED STATES: could be seen as the big losers at the different Pan American Games baseball tournaments. But a look at the medals records shows they have played for first place nine times. This years team is made up by university players, the largest source of future Major Leaguers. In the past these Pan American Games teams have included players like Fred Lynn, who homered against Cuba in Cali 1971, and went on to be the Major League batting champ, Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player all in the same year. All-time season homerun record holder Mark McGwire and pitcher Justin Verlander, a right hander with a 100-mile fastball who was last years American League rookie of the year, became stars after playing on the US Pan Am teams. This years team could have new future stars and besides, it has practiced hard, playing 16 tune-up games, six against US university teams, five against Chinese Taipei and another five against Japan. The same team will also face Cuba on August 6 and 11 in the Rotterdam Baseball Tournament. Here in Rio the US should qualify in Group B and advance to the finals.

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: has a team similar to the disappointing one that played in the 2003 Pan American Games, eliminated by Cuba in the quarterfinals. Luis Polonia is back and one of the outfielders will be Raul Mondesi, famous for his potent arm and active in the Major Leagues until 2005. During his career, Mondesi hit 271 homers. Other players of note are Jose Offerman and Winston Guerrero. The pitching could be the weak link, even though there is an ex-Major Leaguer, Jose Jimenez. The Dominicans entered the tournament at the last minute because of a sudden withdrawal of Canada and could finish among the top teams.

NICARAGUA: Faced enormous financial difficulties for its training and for the trip to Rio. The initial roster only had 23 players from which to select 20. The team has many familiar faces: Norman Cardoze, Henry Roa, Julio Raudez, etc, along with some new ones. Baseball is the national sport in Nicaragua and they recently beat Panama in two tune-up games. Perhaps they could make a good showing.

BRAZIL: Some reporters call them "braponeses", because the majority of their players are of Japanese decent. It is one of the countries that have advanced more in the sport and they are no longer a pushover for anyone. Being the home team could help.

CUBA: The big favorite and main rival of the rest of the teams, who usually start their best pitchers to try and get a very coveted victory. The team draws attention for four reasons: The debut of four players, even though the roster is only 20; the return of right-handed ace Norge Luis Vera; Alexei Ramirez playing second base; and the presence of four lefthanders for only the second time of a Cuban national team in an international event.

Our sports desk has received numerous e-mails suggesting a batting order. Heres mine: Giorvis Duvergel, Yoandry Urgelles, Yulieski Gourriel, Alexander Mayeta, Frederich Cepeda, Alexei Ramirez, Osmani Urrutia, Ariel Pestano and Eduardo Paret. During the last Cuban Baseball season Duvergel and Urgelles, got on base 314 times, on 219 hits and 95 walks and together stole 35 bases. Alexei hit 23 homers, including the playoffs, adding power to the center of the lineup, while Paret should be under less pressure in the ninth slot.

Thats our analysis. Well see what happens on the field starting on July 14, when our predictions are confirmed or proven wrong, a risk one always has to take.

Source: Radio Rebelde

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