Another late, great victory for Team USA


SYDNEY, Australia - It wasn't the World Series. It wasn't even the major leagues in late September.

But for one night, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz was in baseball heaven.

The journeyman with the Minnesota Twins organization hit the homer of a lifetime early today, cracking a bases-empty, ninth-inning, game-winning shot to lead the United States over South Korea, 3-2, in the Olympic semifinals.

"It doesn't matter if there was one person in the stands or 100,000," Mientkiewicz said. "It means the same thing. My country is playing for the gold."

South Korea rebounded today to defeat Japan, 3-1, to win the bronze medal. The United States was due to play Cuba for the gold in a game set to start early morning Baltimore time.

But to get to the final, the Americans had to survive a weird, wet, wondrous game against South Korea.

There was a steady mist, a heavy rain, thunder, lightning, a two-hour rain delay and a final blow by Mientkiewicz, who earlier in the tournament had hit a grand slam against South Korea.

The strangest thing was that with a runner on first and one out, Mientkiewicz wasn't sent up to the plate by manager Tom Lasorda to hit away.

"Tommy said, 'I'm going to have to ask you to bunt,' " Mientkiewicz said. "I said, 'I'm wet, I'm cold, I'm emotionally drained. I just want to get out of here.' "

After a strike, the pinch runner, Travis Dawkins, was picked off. On the next pitch, Mientkiewicz homered to right, stopping, staring and admiring his work before jogging around the bases and into the arms of his ecstatic teammates.

"I look like the biggest idiot if that doesn't go out," Mientkiewicz said.

But the ball sailed over the wall.

"It's all one big blur," he said. "All I want to do is get home and have someone hit me on the head 1,000 times."

It has been that kind of tournament for Mientkiewicz, an outspoken player who has lambasted the Cubans for "dirty" play and even threw a body block of his own against a Cuban runner.

Yet he is soaking up most of his Olympic experience, although he could do without all the pressure.

"I can't stand much more of this," he said. "I want to sleep a month."

Lasorda is also feeling the pressure of managing a team with a habit for late-inning comebacks.

"I've managed 63 playoff games, managed World Series games," he said. "I swear to you, I couldn't have been more excited, more jubilant, just watching these youngsters, the way they were hugging. Boy, you've got to love those guys."

But only in small doses.

"If I had to manage those guys 162 games, you could put me in a straightjacket," Lasorda said. "Those guys are unbelievable."

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