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You'll have some politics mixed in with your pitches Saturday when the United States and Cuba collide in an Olympic baseball game that will involve communism, democracy, oppression, stolen land, Elian Gonzalez, Fidel Castro . . .

"We don't think about the politics of the countries," says U.S first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, ruining everything. "This is about beating the best for us, nothing else.

"I do know this, though: The Cubans enjoy beating the U.S. They enjoy it more than they enjoy anything else. They think we have everything, and don't work hard enough for what we have."

OK, then, if we can't solve world problems with this game, at least least we'll settle for a genuine distaste between the teams. U.S. manager Tommy Lasorda, the face of Americana, has already said he wants to win the gold medal for all the South Floridians who lost their land to Castro.

Tonight's game won't eliminate either team -- the U.S. is unbeaten, the Cubans lost their first game ever in Olympic competition in a stunner against the Netherlands -- but will weigh heavily on the No. 1 seeding for the medal round. If the U.S. -- fielding professional minor-leaguers in the Olympics for the first time -- beats Cuba, it would be in perfect position to be the top seed in the semifinals.

"The Cubans try the big-bully effect, hitting the first batter of the game, swinging so hard that they fall down, but this is the best chance we've ever had to beat them," said Mientkiewicz. "It's not men versus little boys any more. It's men versus men. There are a lot of guys here who aren't intimidated at all by the whole Cuba thing."

Left-hander Rick Krivda, who has pitched professionally for Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati, will start for the U.S. The Cubans, blanketed in communist secrecy, never reveal their starters, but the U.S. expects to see Jose Ariel Contreras before the Olympics are done. A major-league scout recently said Contreras is the third-best pitcher in the world, behind Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson.

"Scouts don't know everything," Mientkiewicz said. "Pedro Martinez can be hit. If he's on, he's going to strike out 20, but he can be hit. Same thing with Contreras. The guy is human."

The Americans improved to 5-0 -- the first time the U.S. has had a better record than Cuba (4-1) in Olympic baseball history -- and gave manager Tommy Lasorda a birthday present today by beating Italy, 4-2.

The win over Italy (1-4) -- a team that's never won more than two games in the Olympic tournament -- was special for Lasorda, a proud Italian and son of an immigrant who settled in Norristown, Pa.

The U.S. scored early runs off a pitcher who was born in California and attended UNLV, then added two more on a reliever's eighth-inning throwing error. After Santa Clara, Calif., native Battista Perri walked two batters with two outs in the eighth, reliever Jason Simontacchi let both runners score with a wild throw to first on Mike Kinkade's comebacker.

Lasorda had lunch with the Italian coaches, who were introduced before the game. When it came time for the Americans, the Aussie public address announcer recognized Lasorda by saying, "And the birthday boy, a big happy birthday!"

The U.S. took a 2-0 lead in the first on three singles, and Italy tied it in the fourth on a single and an infield hit.

Cuba continued to have problems scoring runs, but bounced back from its first-ever Olympic loss to edge Australia, 1-0, today.

The big bats which produced 38 home runs in nine games when Cuba won the Olympic baseball gold in Atlanta were silent again. Cuba's only run came in the bottom of the third when Luis Ulacia's single drove in Miguel Caldes, who got on base courtesy of a dropped fly ball.

Contreras pitched a complete game for Cuba, striking out 10 and allowing only three hits as the Cubans rebounded from its shocking 4-2 defeat to the Netherlands. That loss ended the Cuban streak of 21 straight Olympic wins.

Japan assured themselves of a place in the semifinals with the U.S. and Cuba with an 8-0 win over South Africa.

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