Olympics-U.S. baseball team clinches slot in Tokyo with aid of MLB veterans

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Baseball: WBSC Baseball Americas Qualifier-Canada at USA
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By Paresh Dave

(Reuters) -The United States baseball team won a spot in the Tokyo Olympics after defeating Venezuela 4-2 on Saturday and securing the best record in the Americas qualifier tournament.

Team USA will join reigning champion South Korea, Japan and underdogs Israel and Mexico in the Olympics. A final spot will be up for grabs among the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Australia and Netherlands during a June 22-26 tournament in Puebla, Mexico.

Baseball is returning to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. Organizers voted it and softball off the regular program but brought them back temporarily for Tokyo, where the sports are beloved.

The U.S. Major League Baseball season conflicts with the Olympics and it has long refused to break to let players on big-league rosters compete on the international stage, including qualifiers. Instead of MLB stars, several countries including the United States rely on inexperienced prospects and cast-off veterans.

Former Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Todd Frazier notched four hits for the United States on Saturday, scoring two runs and driving in two. Left-handed outfielder Eric Filia hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning off former Washington Nationals champion Anibal Sanchez to give the United States a lead.

Frazier, 35, who joined the national team after the Pirates dropped him in May, said he was "overjoyed" following the week-long qualifiers that he described as "more intense" than MLB.

"To finish maybe my career winning a gold medal, god almighty that would be icing on the cake," he said.

A Venezuela victory on Saturday would have triggered tie-break rules that could have left it or the Dominican team with the Olympic berth.

Venezuela had chances to rally, including when it loaded the bases in the first inning as pitcher Matthew Liberatore struggled to command his breaking ball. But the St. Louis Cardinals prospect, ranked as the 30th best minor leaguer, benefited from double plays and stellar defense by Frazier and shortstop Nick Allen.

Former major leaguers Edwin Jackson Jr and David Robertson closed out the game for the United States.

The U.S. path to Tokyo cleared after it thrashed Canada 10-1 on Friday, as chants of "U-S-A" rung out from the few thousand people in attendance. Six of the U.S. runs came after an unusual 40-minute on-field dispute during the eight inning over ground rules.

The Americas tournament was held at two MLB training stadiums in Florida, nearly 15 months behind schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Dominican Republic took Canada out of Olympics contention with 6-5 victory earlier Saturday.

Three-time gold medal winner Cuba exited qualifiers early, losing out on a Olympics slot for the first time ever. Puerto Rico, Nicaragua and Colombia also suffered earlier knockouts.

The United States has won a gold medal in baseball once, in 2000.

(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Michael Perry)