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US baseball is stunned, fails to make Olympics

From gold to gone in one quadrennium. In perhaps the biggest upset in international baseball history, the US was kept out of next summer's Olympics by winless Mexico yesterday afternoon, losing, 2-1, on a ninth-inning home run in the quarterfinals of the regional qualifying tournament in Panama City.

"I can't believe it," said former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who coached the 2000 team to the gold medal in Sydney. "It's a shock and a disgrace that the Americans won't be represented in the Olympics."

The defeat was a humiliating blow for the US, which had never failed to qualify for the Games since baseball was added as a demonstration sport in 1984 at Los Angeles and which had won medals at the last two tournaments.

"It would have been nice to go out there and defend it, but now they're not going to get that chance," said Twins first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, who played for the 2000 team which beat Cuba, 4-0, in the final game. "That's just a shame. I feel for all those guys. It's going to be hard to watch the Olympics now, that's for sure."

The defeat was also a brushback for Major League Baseball, which was hoping to showcase the US team (and stars like Yankee pitcher Roger Clemens) in Athens as part of its campaign to broaden the game's international appeal.

"We lost a game," said MLB executive vice president Sandy Alderson, who accompanied the team to the tournament. "I don't think it's a setback for US baseball. I think it's a validation of the internationalization of the game. As we know, anything can happen in a game or a short series of games."

Though the US squad was made up almost entirely of minor-leaguers plus a couple of former big leaguers, it was still a heavy favorite to reach next week's final and claim one of the two places in the Olympic draw, along with the Cubans.

The Americans, who were coached by Frank Robinson, had breezed through their preliminary group, running up a 20-0 aggregate score on Nicaragua, Colombia, and Panama. But they were shut down decisively by their southern neighbors, who received seven brilliant innings from former Mets pitcher Rigo Beltran.

"It was a well-pitched game by their pitchers," conceded Robinson. "We were not able to do much until the ninth inning and it was not enough."

The US had gone ahead on a solo home run by Justin Leone in the fourth inning, but the Mexicans needed only two swings of the bat to win -- a homer in the fifth by Ray Martinez off Cleveland prospect Jason Stanford and Luis Garcia's shot off Arizona farmhand Brian Bruney in the ninth.

Still, the Americans had an excellent chance to win the game in the bottom of the ninth, with men on second and third and one out. But closer Isidro Marquez got Leone to hit a grounder back to the mound and Gerald Laird to pop up to knock the US out and send the Mexicans ahead to face either Canada or Colombia in tomorrow's semifinals.

"Baseball is America's game," said Lasorda. "It doesn't belong to the Japanese or the Cubans or the Koreans or the Italians. This is sad, very sad."

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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