BEIJING - Once upon a time, they were international baseball's Big Red Machine, unbeaten for 10 years in international play and winners of more than 150 consecutive tournament games.
But Cuba's national team has fallen on hard times recently.
Last fall, they lost to the Netherlands in the preliminary round of the World Cup, marking the first time a European team had beaten Cuba in Cup play. Then, five days later, they lost to the U.S. in the gold medal game for the first time in their history.
The reaction in Cuba was swift - and predictable: Manager Ray Vicente Anglada was sacked.
"It's like in the major leagues," said Sigfredo Barros, the dean of Cuban sportswriters. "If you lose, they say: 'Hey, you're a good guy. You have a nice family. But you're no longer the manager.' "
The man on the hot seat now is former national team second baseman Antonio Pacheco, Team Cuba's third manager in two years. And that seat might have gotten a little hotter Friday when his team ran its record in the Beijing Olympics to 3-0 with a 5-4, extra-inning victory over the U.S. in a game that ended in controversy, bad blood and with one U.S. player in the hospital.
Second baseman Jayson Nix, a Colorado Rockies top prospect, was hit in the face with a pitch that ricocheted off the barrel of his bat as he tried to bunt in the 11th inning. Nix, who was cut above his left eye, was rushed to the hospital for tests, and afterward, his manager, Davey Johnson, accused Cuban pitcher Pedro Luis Lazo of hitting Nix on purpose.
"I don't see any place in baseball for that," Johnson said. "I'm sure that the team plan was to throw it right at the guy's head. No game in baseball is worth that as far as I'm concerned."
Lazo, who gave up one hit in six innings of relief to earn the win, was incredulous when asked about Johnson's comments.
"The ball hit the bat!" said Lazo, whose account was backed by television replays. "The ball hit the bat and then hit him in the face!"
Either way, Johnson said Nix could miss the rest of the tournament, which could hurt because the U.S. is already without infielder Mike Hessman, who missed the past two games with a foot problem.
Also a source of pain for Johnson's team? Yesterday's loss drops them to 1-2 in the tournament and leaves them in danger of missing the medal round for the first time in an Olympics in which they competed.
Under regular baseball rules, Nix would never have been at the plate in the 11th inning. But this tournament is the first to be played under a complicated tiebreaker rule requested by the International Olympic Committee, which had complained that baseball was the only sport that had both an indeterminate playing time and, unlike soccer and softball, no procedure to make ties easier to break.
Under the format, each team begins the 11th inning with runners on first and second bases and can start the at-bat anywhere in the lineup it chooses. Cuba started with leadoff hitter Glorbis Duvergel, who promptly bunted the runners into scoring position for Michel Enriquez, who singled them in.
In the bottom of the inning, the U.S. opened with Nix, who had popped out with the winning run on second to end the 10th. He also tried to bunt but fouled Lazo's first pitch back into his face.
As Nix was being helped into the clubhouse, Brian Barden came on to hit and got the bunt down. Los Angeles Dodgers and former Orioles minor leaguer Terry Tiffee followed with a sacrifice fly, but Matt Brown fouled out to the catcher with the tying run on third to end the game.
"The whole extra-inning thing I think is bogus," said Tiffee, who had two doubles in addition to his sacrifice fly, leaving him 6-for-12 in the Games. "But that's the way this competition is, and you have to go out and play."