Korea and Cuba finished first and second in the preliminary round of the Olympic Baseball tournament. Thanks to victories today in their respective semi-finals, they will finish in the top two medal positions as well, although it’s anyone’s guess which one will end up with the gold medal.
In the 2006 World Baseball Classic, Korea beat Japan twice in the group stages only to lose to them in the semi-finals. Having defeated their Asian rivals 5-3 in the Preliminary round here, Korea made sure they didn’t make the same mistake again. Japan plated two runs off Korea’s starter Kwanghyun Kim over the first three innings, but he settled down and gave up no further runs during his eight inning performance.
The game was finely balanced heading into the eighth inning, with Korea scoring their second run of the game in the bottom of the seventh to draw level at 2-2. Hitoki Iwase came in to pitch the eighth inning for Japan and promptly gave up a two-run homer to Seungyuop Lee. It looked like he had escaped from the inning with no further damage when Youngmin Ko hit a flyball to Takahiko Sato with two outs and a runner on first base; however the left fielder dropped the ball, allowing the runner to score and keeping the inning alive. Ko came around to score on a double to give Korea a 6-2 advantage as Japan came to bat in the top of the ninth. Suk Min Yoon came in to the game for Korea and Japan, with their tournament on the line, were unable to mount a comeback. Two fly-outs to right field and a strike out ended the game. Korea won 6-2 and sat back in the Beijing evening to see who they would face in the final.
The second semi-final saw Cuba take on the United States: bitter rivals both on and off the field. Baseball fans all over the world would love to see the two teams matching up with their strongest sides. While Cuba can field most of their top players, the U.S. can only pick from the Minor Leagues for the Olympics. It’s perhaps no surprise therefore that Cuba romped home to a 10-2 victory.
The winning margin was padded by a six-run eighth inning. Jeff Stevens was victimized once again, giving up a three-run blast to Alexei Bell. It capped a 2 for 4 performance by the Cuban right fielder, who has been in imperious form throughout the tournament with a batting average of .520. Blane Neal was brought in to stop the bleeding, but he could only serve up another three-run homer, this time off the bat of catcher Ariel Pestano. The inning extended Cuba’s 4-2 lead to 10-2 and it was a blow that knocked the wind out the the U.S’s sails. They got a couple of runners aboard in the top of the ninth, but Cuba’s ace reliever Pedro Lazo kept them from scoring and struck out Lou Marson to end the game, and with it the United States’ Olympic tournament.
The bronze medal match is certainly not a dead rubber. Missing out on the final will hurt, but going home with nothing will be a big blow to either team. So, Japan and the U.S. will wake up tomorrow determined to get their hands on a medal. The game begins at 03.30 am BST and is being broadcast live via the red button on Satellite/Cable 5 or on the BBC website.
As for the final, it’s too close to call; both teams would be worthy winners. Korea are going for an unbeaten tournament. Cuba’s only loss came at the hands of their final game opponents and they would love to turn the tables and get the win when it matters the most. It promises to be a great game. Unfortunately, you can’t watch it live in Britain, but it will be broadcast ‘as live’ via the red button on Satellite/Cable 5 and on the BBC website.