BARCELONA, Spain -- It has been the most consistent phase of the United States' game plan. The Americans love to steal bases. And hit and run. They want to take the extra base, and keep the pressure on the opponent.
Yesterday, the U.S. baseball team was unstoppable. It scored three runs in the first inning on four hits and three steals. The United States scored three more in the third with one hit and two steals.
It eventually added up to 10 stolen bases and an 8-2 victory over Puerto Rico that advanced the United States to the four-team medal round that also includes Cuba (5-0), Chinese-Taipei (4-1) and Japan (4-1).
All but Chinese-Taipei (Taiwan) were expected to make the medal round. The United States (4-1) has two games remaining: tonight with the Dominican Republic, and tomorrow night against Japan.
Barring an upset of the Cubans, two wins would give the Americans a No. 2 seed behind Cuba, which is favored to win the gold. The Cubans defeated Spain, 18-0, yesterday, Taiwan beat the Dominican Republic, 11-0, and Japan crushed Italy, 13-3.
"I think the pressure is off now," said U.S. manager Ron Fraser. "We've got a good chance to be No. 2 or No. 3. We don't want to be No. 4. But because the pressure is off, we still should remain focused."
Second baseman Chris Wimmer was more direct.
"We want one more shot at the Cubans," said Wimmer, whose team lost, 9-6, to Cuba on Wednesday night. "If we played them 10 times, they might beat us seven. But that gold-medal game is just one game. And they can be beat. We've beaten them before."
The United States will need the type of success it had on the bases yesterday if it is to beat Cuba. The team almost doubled its stolen base total in yesterday's game.
Wimmer had two. So did left fielder Calvin Murray and designated hitter Michael Tucker.
"Look at this team," said Wimmer. "Look at the front part of our lineup. Murray, myself, Jeffrey [Hammonds] and Tuck, all of us can run.
"That's what our club is geared to. We want to keep the defense on its toes. We wanted to come out early and get up on these guys. We thought if we did, they would roll over."
Puerto Rico did. But Fraser and the United States had an advantage. Puerto Rico starter Silvio Censale pitched for Fraser at Miami last season.
He gave his players the green light.
Censale got the red one after only two-thirds of an inning.
"It was kind of strange seeing one of us pitching against us," said Fraser. "But I thought we could take advantage of him. I know him very well. That's why we got good jumps."
It started in the first. Murray led off with a single, and stole second two pitches later. A bad throw on the play moved Murray to third, and Wimmer scored him with a sacrifice fly to right field.
Hammonds, the center fielder and Orioles' No. 1 draft pick, then singled. He stole second and scored when Tucker singled up the middle.
Tucker stole second and moved to third on a balk. Phil Nevin had a sacrifice fly to center field to give the U.S. team a 3-0 lead.
The Americans kept up the pressure in the third. Tucker walked with one out and stole second. After Nevin struck out, Jason Giambi walked and McConnell singled, scoring Tucker.
Jose Mateo Rosario, who relieved Censale in the first, threw a wild pitch that sent Giambi home and McConnell to third. Charles Johnson walked, then intentionally got caught in a rundown, which enabled McConnell to score for a 6-1 lead.
"Overall, we're pleased, but not satisfied," said Wimmer. "One more shot at the Cubans."