Friday, August 25, 2006

US and Cuba favorites to qualify for Beijing Olympics

Updated: Aug. 25, 2006, 4:13 AM ET

Associated Press
Olympics News Wire

HAVANA -- The United States' national baseball team is ready to put its absence at the 2004 Athens Games behind them.

"We look forward to competing in Cuba and getting Team USA to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing," manager Davey Johnson said.

The United States and Cuba, the gold medalists two years ago, are the favorites among 12 teams competing for two direct Olympic slots going into the regional baseball qualifying tournament for the Americas beginning Friday in Havana.

The top two national teams selected during the regional qualifier will automatically participate in the 2008 Summer Games. Baseball will be played as an Olympic sport for the last time at those games before it is removed.

The U.S. and Cuba won't compete against each other in the first round, but are expected to keep an eye on each other in the initial phase.

Cuba and Colombia start the tournament Friday night at Havana's Latinoamericano Stadium. Also playing in Pool A is Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama and the Dominican Republic.

The United States makes its debut Saturday against Canada in Pool B, which includes Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

The third- and fourth-place finishers in the regional qualifier will advance to a secondary Olympic qualifying event in spring 2008.

The U.S. team is made up of 24 professional players not included on the 25-man rosters of major league organizations.

Mike Kinkade, a 33-year-old third baseman who has played with the New York Mets, Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers, is the only player at the tournament who was on the U.S. team when it won the gold at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

The American players also include Chad Allen, a 31-year-old outfielder who has played for the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, Florida Marlins and Texas Rangers. Allen was on the U.S. squad that won the bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

The 12-man pitching roster features four left-handers: Arizona's Mike Bacsik and Greg Smith, Chicago's Heath Phillips and Tampa's Jeff Ridgway.

The U.S. team won three friendly games against Puerto Rico and was 1-1 against Canada in Florida in preparation for the regional tournament.

Playing at home, Cuba expects to be at its best.

"There is only one goal: to win," manager Rey Vicente Anglada said.

Led by Cuba's new star, infielder Yulieski Gourriel, many of the squad's 24 members helped the island take home the silver medal at the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

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