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Olympic Baseball 2008 – In Review

by Matt Smith

It’s now a week since the Olympic Baseball tournament was brought to a close by a thrilling final that saw Korea crowned as champions over Cuba.  Following the International Olympic Committee’s decision to boot baseball (and softball) off the Olympic list for the 2012 London Games, this year’s event represented a great opportunity for the sport to show what everyone would be missing in four years time.  The eight teams involved made sure that they didn’t let this chance pass them by. 

In my preview of the tournament, I concluded that Japan, Korea, Cuba and the U.S. were the four teams most likely to make it through the preliminary stages.  That proved to be accurate, although it wasn’t going too far out on a limb to make such a prediction. 

Chinese Taipei and Canada both had solid teams, but they looked like they would need one of the four favourites to slip up if either was going to progress through to the semi-final stage.  That didn’t happen so they had to settle for fifth and sixth place respectively.  China and the Netherlands were the minnows in such heady company and it wasn’t a surprise to see them in the bottom two spots, even though European bias made us hopeful that the Dutch could spring a surprise or two.  Their offense just did not turn up in Beijing.  They were shutout in five of their seven games and two-thirds of their total runs (six of nine) came against China in their only victory. 

Little was expected from China, except perhaps for them to be the whipping boys.  That expectation was met in four of their seven games, but they were able to win a game against Chinese Taipei and came extremely close to inflicting Korea with what would have been their only defeat.  Against the best competition on the international baseball circuit, China acquitted themselves admirably even if they were ultimately over-matched.

As for the top four teams, looking at the final results you could argue that they really split into two groups of two.  With Korea and Cuba beating Japan and the U.S. respectively in the semi-finals, it gives the impression that they were clearly a cut above the rest.  Making that assumption might be an oversimplification on the basis of such a short tournament: it wouldn’t have been a massive shock to see a Japan-U.S. Final.  They had the best pitching during the preliminary round, based on ERA.  Japan’s hurlers were particularly impressive during their seven group games, logging a combined 1.60 ERA while striking out 74 and walking just 15 batters over 62 innings.

Cuba and Korea’s offense proved to be the difference though, defying the conventional baseball wisdom that good pitching beats good hitting. 

There wasn’t much to choose between Korea and Cuba.  The fact that the former won both of their two contests gives them reason to claim they were undoubtedly the better team, but Cuba will probably feel that they had the more impressive roster overall and they let the gold get away.  Certainly a quick glimpse at Korea’s team batting line shows that they didn’t exactly slug their way to glory.  Of their 69 hits recorded during the preliminary round, 56 of them went for a single base.   They also made by far the most attempts to steal a base (12) and invariably ran themselves into outs rather than into scoring position (5 out of the 12 were caught stealing, a paltry 58% success rate).  Somehow, they made their smallball approach work.  They added in a couple of homers and doubles at opportune moments during their semi-final and the final and basically took their chances as they came along.  That’s the mark of a very good team and they got their reward in the end.  Let’s be honest: you can’t argue with a perfect 9-0 record.

Individual performances

Cuba’s Alexei Bell was the offensive player of the tournament.  Bell hit .500/.556/1.031 while playing in all nine of Cuba’s games.  His sixteen hits included three doubles, four triples and two home runs, with one of those long balls being a crucial seventh inning shot in the Final.

Korea’s Daeho Lee also had an impressive campaign, hitting .360/.515/.760.  His three home runs led the competition, while his tally of ten runs batted in was second behind the eleven accumulated by Cuba’s Alfredo Despaigne.  

There were several excellent pitching performances to savour.  Japan’s great pitching was led by the trio of Yoshihisa Naruse (19K’s and no runs conceded in 12 innings pitched), Hideaki Wakui (0.66 ERA, 13K’s in 13.2 innings pitched) and Toshiya Sugiuchi (0.84 ERA, 9 K’s in 10.2 innings pitched).  Stephen Strasburg, the lone college player on the U.S. roster, pitched brilliantly against the Netherlands in the preliminary round.  He struck out eleven batters and gave up just one hit over seven innings, but he was tagged with the loss against Cuba in the semi-final.  The star Cuban reliever Pedro Lazo was his usual intimidating self until the Final when he walked two and gave up what came to be the game-winning run.

However, Korea’s Hyunjin Ryu gets my vote for the pitcher of the tournament.  He got the win in the Final and finished with a 1.04 ERA from his 17.1 innings overall.  The two runs he gave up during the tournament came on two hanging curveball mistakes that the Cuban hitters didn’t miss, but other than that he was very impressive.  No doubt a few Major League teams watched his performances with interest.

Running a rule over the rules

The Olympic tournament utilized the mercy killing rule and was the first major event to use the IBAF’s new ‘extra innings rule’.

Five games were ended via the ‘mercy killing’ rule.  China were the main victims, losing three games without going the full nine innings.  The host nation lost their opener 10-0  in eight innings against Canada, they fell to the same score against Japan 10-0 (this time in seven innings) and were thwacked 17-1 by Cuba in seven frames.  The Netherlands accounted for the other two ‘mercy killing’ defeats, losing in eight innings to both of the eventual finalists (14-3 against Cuba and 10-0 against Korea).

The controversial ‘extra innings’ rule also came into effect on five occasions.  Three games were decided in eleven innings and two within twelve.  The ‘away’ team gets the first opportunity to benefit from the two free baserunners under this new rule and they prevailed in three out of the five games; however this suggests that neither team is placed at a great advantage or disadvantage depending on whether they are the home or away side (Note: Joe took a closer look at the extra innings rule on Thursday). 

Thankfully, neither rule came into play during the semi-finals, bronze medal game or gold medal game.

Hope for the future?

The quality of the 2008 Olympic Baseball tournament showed that there should be a place at the Olympic table for the sport.  For various reasons, most of them a product of European ignorance/prejudice and none of them particularly valid, that’s no longer the case.  The IOC President Jacques Rogge’s recent comments, that baseball’s reinstatement could hinge on a commitment to allow MLB players to participate, could be a significant stumbling block, but the sport shouldn’t be too discouraged.  There’s no doubt that international baseball is blossoming.  With the World Baseball Classic and the Baseball World Cup (the latter being staged in Europe) next year, there is lots for international baseball fans to look forward to and much to be excited about.  Hopefully 2009 will end with the IOC deciding to bring baseball back for 2016, but if not the sport can move on and continue its successful campaign to grow the sport using other methods.   Being stripped of Olympic status undoubtedly hurts, but it is far from a death knell.  There’s too much great baseball to enjoy for that to be the case.

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