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Olympic Notebook:
Medal-round preview

By John Manuel

September 25

To paraphrase Eminem, will the real Team USA please stand up?

Whichever team shows up in medal round Tuesday and Wednesday at Homebush Baseball Stadium will have to beat the strongest field in Olympic history. The first Olympics with professional baseball players has produced upsets nearly every day and some of the most exciting baseball this side of the major leagues.

The 1999 Pan American Games, which marked the first time USA Baseball used pros, was considered the best international baseball tournament. Pros also comprised teams from Canada, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, among others. As deep as that tournament was, observers say this tournament is better.

"The pitching in this tournament is much better than the Pan Ams," said Tony Bernazard, the former big leaguer who now works with the Major League Baseball Players Association. "The Far East teams, Japan and Korea, have much better pitching than teams like Canada. These teams have major leaguers from their countries on their teams. Maybe the bottom teams aren’t as good as in the Pan Ams, but the top teams here are all very strong."

The top four teams separated themselves from the pack late in the tournament. Korea won its last three games after losing Wednesday to Team USA. Included in that three-game winning streak was an impressive 7-6 win against Japan, its biggest rival and the biggest victory of the tournament.

Hard to believe, but that was more significant than the Netherlands handing the Cubans their first-ever Olympic loss. When the Dutch took their own shocking upset, a 3-2 loss that gave South Africa its first-ever Olympic win, Korea had its shot at the medal round. It took full advantage.

Now Korea is the No. 3 seed in the tournament, playing the second-seeded Americans. No. 1 Cuba takes on Japan, the fourth seed which lost in each of its meetings with the other finalists.

No. 1 Cuba (6-1)

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What Has Gone Right: The strength of the team is pitching, and Cuba’s top arms have delivered for the most part. Righthander Jose Contreras delivered a crucial shutout against Australia, helping Cuba rebound from the loss to the Netherlands and regain momentum going into its game with Team USA, which righthander Jose Ibar dominated. As usual, DH Orestes Kindelan and third baseman Omar Linares were merely good in the preliminary round, but had plenty of help in the lineup from the likes of outfielders Miguel Caldes and Yobal Duenas.

What Has Gone Wrong: Outside of five perfect innings against South Africa, No. 2 starter Norge Vera has struggled. Closer Pedro Luis Lazo looked human against Team USA, and the whole lineup looked mortal against hard-throwing U.S. righthander Jon Rauch.

How They Win It All: Cuba plays like every opponent is Team USA. Cuba got through a slump when in games against Korea, the Netherlands and Australia, it scored a total of nine runs while also giving up nine. Team USA woke up the sleeping giant, and Kindelan and Linares look primed to once again provide big hits when they really count.

How They Don’t: An aging team continues to struggle against pitchers who throw strikes. Rauch, Australia’s Shayne Bennett and the Netherlands’ Ken Brauckmiller demonstrated all shut Cuba down. The Cubans have lost their veneer of invincibility with three losses in the last two international competitions, and the switch to wood bats in that span has sapped some of the strength from its lineup.

No. 2 United States (6-1)

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What Has Gone Right: The team’s strength was supposed to be its starting pitching. Talk about fulfilling a prediction. Excluding the Rick Krivda experiment against Cuba, Team USA’s rotation has posted a 0.81 ERA. No team has rivaled Team USA’s defense up the middle in the infield given by Brent Abernathy (Devil Rays), Gookie Dawkins (Reds) and Adam Everett (Astros). The U.S. lineup has found three consistent hitters in leadoff man Abernathy, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz (Twins) and outfielder/DH Ernie Young (Cardinals).

What Has Gone Wrong: Team USA’s lefthanded hitters aside from Mientkiewicz have slumped after a strong start. The best one, third baseman Sean Burroughs (Padres), is stuck behind veteran Mike Kinkade (Orioles) at third base. To beat the likes of Contreras, Japan’s Daisuke Matsuzaka or Korean submariner Tae-Hyon Chong, John Cotton (Rockies), Mike Neill (Mariners) and especially Brad Wilkerson (Expos) have to snap out of their funks and produce.

How They Win It All: Team USA gets big hits out of the likes of Mientkiewicz, Wilkerson or Young, and beats Chong behind righthander Roy Oswalt (Astros). Team USA’s offense got back on track against solid pitching against Australia, and should do well in a second look against Chong. Then the Americans’ gold-medal hopes rest on righthander Ben Sheets (Brewers), probably the best possible choice in the American minor leagues to face Cuba or Japan with the gold medal on the line.

How They Don’t: Oswalt and the lefthanded hitters can’t get the job done against Korea. It’s hard to imagine this team getting up for the bronze-medal game and beating either Japan or Cuba in that situation, no matter how well Sheets pitches. As far as gold, can Team USA hit against either Matsuzaka or Contreras? The likely answer is no, unless someone steps forward to help Young in the middle of the lineup.

No. 3 Korea (4-3)

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What Has Gone Right: After a 1-3 start and a string of injuries, Korea gained confidence and momentum by beating Japan. First baseman Seung-Yuop Lee has rebounded from back and ankle injuries and hit his first homer, against Japan. Korea has gotten a crucial performance out of catcher Kyung-Oan Park, a backup who has replaced the injured Sung-Heon Hong.

What Has Gone Wrong: The injuries have mounted up. Korea’s top starter, Min-Tae Chong, was hit in the shin with a shattered bat against Japan. He didn’t break a bone, but his availability for the medal game is questionable. Korea couldn’t put away Cuba and Team USA in close games and somehow gave little effort against Australia.

How They Win It All: Tae-Hyon Chong handles Team USA with the ease with which he did against the Americans in his first start. He gave up five hits and no walks in seven shutout innings. Third baseman Dong-Joo Kim, DH Ki-Tai Kim and Lee come up with the big hits that they couldn’t get against Oswalt in their first meeting. Then Min-Tae Chong returns for the gold-medal game and gets the job done.

How They Don’t: Oswalt, who didn’t pitch particularly well in his first start, holds down Korea’s bats again. Korea needs more consistent production from outfielder Byung-Kyu Lee, compared by scouts to Devon White for his both his talent and attitude. It’s unlikely Japan would drop a third straight game against its archrival in either a bronze- or gold-medal game.

No. 4 Japan (4-3)

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What Has Gone Right: Japan has played like a professional team and has been led by Japanese major leaguers such as first baseman Nobuhiko Matsunaka, third baseman Norihiro Nakamura, catcher Fumihiro Suzuki, outfielder So Taguchi and DH Yukio Tanaka. Top pitchers Matsuzaka and Tomohiro Kuroki have pitched well, with Kuroki expected to start against Cuba in Tuesday’s semifinal rematch.

What Has Gone Wrong: Japan is 0-3 against Cuba, Korea and the United States, and has lost both of Matsuzaka’s starts, which is certainly unexpected. Japan’s industrial leaguers, aside from shortstop Yoshinori Okihara, haven’t produced offensively, leaving the big leaguers to pick up too much of the slack.

How They Win It All: Kuroki, who pitches for the Chiba Lotte Marines, dominates Cuba in much the same manner Brauckmiller did, and the big league hitters prove too much for Cuba’s Vera to handle. That would give the ball in the gold-medal game to Matsuzaka, perhaps the tournament’s best player, takes the mound. It’s unfathomable that the Japanese would go 0-for-3 in his starts.

How They Don’t: Cuba is Cuba, and Japan’s confidence can’t be high after losing its last two games. Korea will have plenty of motivation in any rematch between the two teams, having won two in a row in the series.

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