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Korea wins gold

by Matt Smith

Amid stunning scenes at the Wukesong Baseball Field in Beijing, Korea held off a late surge from Cuba to win the Olympic gold medal in the most dramatic style imaginable.  In a game that had everything, Korea prevailed by a final score of 3-2 to win the gold medal for the first time. 

Trailing 3-2 heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, Cuba fought to retain their Olympic crown by loading the bases on a walk with one out.  The home plate umpire’s decision to call the pitch ‘ball four’ left Korea’s catcher Minho Kang enraged and he was subsequently thrown out of the game, while the Korean coaching staff argued with the umpires on the field.  The break in play saw Korea’s starting pitcher Hyunjin Ryu being replaced after throwing 8.1 excellent innings and the Cuban team looked on expectantly, believing they had been handed a winning position. 

Korea had no choice but to face this desperate situation with a new battery coming in cold off the bench.  If pitcher Taehyon Chong and catcher Kabyong Jin were feeling any nerves, they didn’t let it show.  A single would have won the game and the gold medal for Cuba, but Chong got Yuliesky Gourriel to hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game and spark scenes of wild jubilation among the Korean side and their supporters. 

It looked like Korea had thrown the game away with an incredible meltdown that would have been remembered for years to come.  Instead, Korea will be remembered as the team that beat the mighty Cuba twice to win what could be the final Olympic baseball tournament, subject to the sport’s possible reinstatement to the Olympic schedule.

The dramatic ending befitted a tightly contested game that remained close throughout thanks to some excellent pitching. 

Korea sent the left-hander Hyunjin Ryu to the mound for the Final.  Ryu gave up just five hits when he threw a complete game shutout against Canada during the Preliminary round, a performance that would have been particularly satisfying as he lost to the same team during the Final Olympic Qualifying tournament earlier in the year.  Cuba countered with another left-hander, Norberto Gonzalez, who had been used as a reliever in three games prior to starting in the Final.  Gonazalez had picked up two saves while striking out seven batters during his five innings of work before his appearance in the gold medal game.

With runs expected to be in short supply, both teams looked to jump on the starting pitchers early.  Korea’s Seungyuop Lee smashed a two-run homer in the top of the first inning to give his team a 2-0 lead, only for Cuba to counter in the bottom of the inning with a solo home run by Michel Enriquez.  Ryu and Gonzalez settled down after the first frame, with Ryu in particular impressing thanks to excellent control of his fastball, curve and change-up that left the Cuban batters off-balance more often than not. 

The score remained at 2-1 until the seventh inning.  Cuba had brought in their dominating reliever Pedro Lazo during the sixth and for once he was unable to play his usual heroic role.  With runners on first and second, Yongkyu Lee laced a double down the right field line that scored Jinman Park and gave Korea a 3-1 lead.  Lee’s celebrations at second base showed just how important Korea felt that one extra run could be and they were proved right when Alexei Bell took a Ryu curveball into the right-centre field seats in the bottom of the inning to bring Cuba to within one run yet again.

The scoreline stayed at 3-2 heading into the bottom of the ninth, setting up the thrilling finale that could have gone either way.  Korea decided to stay with the hot hand and sent Ryu back out to the mound to try and finish what he had started.  Possibly due to his previous exertions or the pressure of the situation, or maybe a combination of the two, Ryu suddenly lost the strikezone and found a whole heap of trouble in the form of three Cuban base runners. 

Korea felt that it was not so much Ryu losing the strikezone, but more a case of the home plate umpire Carlos Rey Cotto losing the plot at a crucial point in the game.  The quality of the officials during the Games had been called into question previously and both sides took umbrage with decisions at several points during the Final.  Pedro Lazo remonstrated with Cotto on several occasions about his strikezone and Cotto also somehow missed a clear ‘hit by pitch’ in the top of the sixth inning when Korea’s Yongkyu Lee was hit squarely on his leg. 

With the chaotic scenes in the ninth inning involving umpires and coaches arguing on the field, while Korea’s catcher was violently hurling his equipment off it, there was a danger that the officials might overshadow the event.  Thankfully, the game-ending double-play made sure that wasn’t the case.

Korea won gold while going unbeaten throughout the tournament, repeating a feat only previously achieved by their Final opponents in 1992 and 1996.  It was a richly deserved win and they will now be able to call themselves the Olympic champions for another eight years at least. 

If this is to be the last Olympic baseball tournament, the sport went out on a high note with a thrilling final that brought an end to an excellent competition overall. 

However, hopefully the great action served up by all eight teams over the past week and a half will help to ensure that baseball’s (and softball’s) absence from the 2012 Olympics will prove to be a brief hiatus.

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