After 10 scoreless innings, no one could have blamed Team USA manager Davey Johnson if he played for one run in the 11th. But Johnson decided to go for a big inning, which paid off in a 4-2 win over Japan.
Brian Barden started off the scoring in the 11th with an RBI single, and Matt Brown and Nate Schierholtz also added RBI singles.
The win gives the U.S. the No. 3 seed for the semifinals, although it could be argued that it’s better to be seeded fourth. By earning the No. 3 seed, the U.S. will face No. 2 seed Cuba in the second semifinal game Friday morning at 6 a.m. ET. Japan will face top-seed South Korea in the other semifinal at 10:30 p.m. on Thursday. That’s the consolation prize for Japan—while it lost, it might be in better shape to win the gold medal.
While South Korea has been undefeated through the round-robin, Cuba, with its long history of international success, has to be considered the tougher test as the defending Olympic champ. South Korea has won one bronze in Olympic play, while Cuba has won the gold in three of the four Olympics where baseball was an official event. It finished with the silver in 2000 thanks to a loss to Ben Sheets and Team USA in the gold medal game.
The U.S. will send San Diego State righthander Stephen Strasburg to the mound to face Cuba. Even though Strasburg is the only amateur on the U.S. team, Johnson decided to push his start back a day to ensure that he would be ready for what should be the biggest game of the tournament.
Cuba beat Team USA 5-4 in extra innings in the round-robin, in a game that gained an extra edge with Johnson’s postgame accusation that Cuban closer Pedro Luis Lazo intentionally threw at Jayson Nix. However, in recent international play, the U.S. has beaten Cuba, including an 8-5 victory in the Olympic qualifying tournament final in Havana in 2006 and a 6-3 victory in November 2007 in the World Cup final.
Because both Japan and the U.S. already had qualified for the medal round, Thursday’s game was supposed to be anticlimatic, but thanks to plenty of strong pitching, it ended up as one of the more interesting games of the tournament. Both Japan and the U.S. pulled their starting pitchers quickly. Japan’s Yu Darvish threw two perfect innings and Team USA’s Trevor Cahill allowed only one walk in three innings. But the two team’s bullpens were just as effective, as the game went to the 11th tied 0-0 as both teams worked on two-hitters.
Thanks to the new international speed-up rules, runners were placed on first and second to start the 11th. The U.S. picked up four runs in the top of the 11th, and Casey Weathers made it stick, even though he did have to work out of jam.
Weathers started out the bottom of the 11th in fine form, as he struck out the leadoff batter and induced a fly out. But back-to-back singles and a wild pitch put the tying run at second base, while a walk loaded the bases and put the winning run at first. Pinch-hitter Shinnosuke Abe had the chance to be a hero, but Weathers got him to pop out to first base to end the game.