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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Previewing US Olympic Baseball

The United States Olympic team returns to action after an eight year absence on Wednesday with a doubleheader, squaring off against Korea in the morning game, and Netherlands in the evening round. After a dramatic victory in the Gold Medal game in 2000, the US failed to qualify for the 2004 games, losing 2-1 to Mexico in the Olympic qualifying tournament in 2003.

Manager Dave Johnson returns to China for the second time since November, where he led the US to a Gold Medal in the World Cup, their first in 33 years. Johnson, who has World Series rings as a player, (Baltimore Orioles) and manager, (New York Mets), along with General Manager Bob Watson, will be accompanied by the entire staff who assisted in the World Cup, Marcel Lachemann, (pitching coach), Reggie Smith, (hitting coach/first base coach), Rick Eckstein (third base coach), and auxiliary coaches Dick Cooke and Rolando de Armas. Roster eligibility for the Olympic team consists of any professional player not currently on an active, 25 man Major League roster. From an initial list of sixty players, extensive practice sessions and exhibition games narrowed the list to thirty, with the Futures Game at Yankee Stadium on All-Star weekend being the final showcase for players hoping to land a spot on the final roster. The final roster lists fifteen players currently on Triple A rosters, with others selected from lower minor league classifications and the amateur USA Junior National Team, and one amateur player, San Diego State University righthander Stephen Strasburg.

The US squad is a mirror version of Johnson’s powerhouse Mets teams of the late ‘80’s. A combination of International veterans and rookies, the bullpen is a mixture of power and finesse pitchers, with righty lefty flexibility on each. The everyday lineup is solid up the middle, with a mixture of speed and power, although limited on lefthanded power. Some of the more recognizable players Johnson will be counting on are power reliever Casey Weathers, and closer Blaine Neal, a five year Major League veteran. Johnson brings with him several position players who played important roles on the World Cup winning team, including infielder Brian Bixler, outfielder Matt LaPorta, and World Cup MVP Jayson Nix. Colby Rasmus, the leadoff hitter in the World Cup and a Johnson favorite, injured his knee shortly before the US began exhibition play and is unable to participate. Following their opening twin bill on the thirteenth, the US returns to action on each of the next two days, squaring off against Cuba on the fourteenth and Canada on the fifteenth. After two days of inactivity, games against China on the 18th, Chinese Taipei on the 19th, and Japan on the 20th rounds out pool play. The semi finals in medal play begin on the 22nd, with the Gold Medal Game on the 23rd.

Top competition for the Gold Medal is led, as usual, by Cuba. Cuba has won three of the previous four Olympic gold medals, losing only to the US in 2000 in what has become a classic, the three hit shutout thrown by Ben Sheets. Cuba’s Olympic team is virtually the same as the one who reached the finals of the 2006 World Baseball Classic, and is led by second baseman Yulieski Gourriel and rightfielder Alex Bell, who, despite standing only 5’9”, became the first Cuban player ever to hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs in he same Cuban League season, which counts just 90 games. Yadel Marti, who threw 12 2/3 scoreless innings in the WBC, and righthander Norge Vera, who returns with his 95 mph fastball after a 2007 injury, lead the pitching staff.

Japan is sending 25 of the top players from their Major Leagues, making them, on paper at least, the odds on favorite for the gold medal. Increasingly serious about their standing as a world baseball power, Japan is still smarting from their Bronze Medal finish at the 2004 games in Athens, and despite rebounding with a win in the World Baseball Classic, is seeking redemption on the Olympic stage. Managed by Senichi Hoshino, a Japanese Hall of Fame pitcher with the Chunichi Dragons and a former Central League manager, Japan will play the game the same way they always have, fundamentally solid, with a premium of pitching and defense and utilizing speed to put pressure on the opponents. Japan is led by 22 year old righthander Yu Darvish, who, despite his young age, is already a five year veteran of Japanese baseball. Darvish, was born in Iran to a Japanese mother and Iranian father and recently became a Japanese citizen, which qualified him for an international passport and Olympic eligibility. Darvish , who stands 6’5”, is the Central League ERA leader at 1.88, there are some who feel he could easily surpass the bounty paid by the Red Sox for Diasuke Matsuzaka, although he won’t be eligible for free agency for several years.

Korea, against whom the US is 5-0 all time in Olympic play, is led by Seung Yeop-Lee, whose five homers in the WBC led Korea all the way to the semi finals. Currently playing in Japan with the Yomiuri Giants, Lee has held his own against better competition than he would see in Korea, although he on occasion becomes frustrated with his lack of consistency. Unlike Cuba, however, Korea’s team is vastly different from the one everyone saw in the WBC, with just four players from that team making the trip to China. Korea is rebounding from several down years in international competition, they to failed to qualify for Athens in ’04.

The complete roster

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