Korea rallies for win over U.S.
Americans take lead but don't hold it in Olympic opener
BEIJING -- It felt more like a heavyweight boxing match over at the Beijing Worker's Gymnasium, and after a wild exchange of punches that made the first Extra Innings Rule usage seem inevitable, the United States lost, 8-7, to Korea Wednesday in the opener of the Summer Olympics baseball competition at Wukesong Field 2.
Jongwook Lee hit the walk-off sacrifice fly to center in the ninth to easily score Taekkeun Lee ahead of Dexter Fowler's throw, leaving Jeff Stevens with a blown save out of the gates and little time for the Americans to dwell on it due to a 10:30 p.m. ET game against the Netherlands.
The celebration scene at the plate told the story of this game's magnitude. There will not be room for too many missed opportunities in these Olympics. The field of eight will be cut to four after everyone plays each other once, and that will be based on won-loss record and then the first tie-breaker will be head-to-head. The medal games are set for Aug. 23.
"We've got a good lineup from top to bottom," said No. 9 hitter Brian Barden, the Cardinals' Triple-A shortstop who went 3-for-4 and had an RBI double during the ninth-inning comeback that went for naught. "I've seen us hit for nearly two weeks, and to push the way we did, it's a sign of what kind of team we are. It's too bad we had the miscues but I feel we played a strong game."
The U.S. team, comprised of 23 top Major League prospects borrowed from organizations (plus San Diego State junior Steve Strasburg, the probable starter against the Netherlands), had its troubles at various points but seemed on the verge of a blissful ending. And Matt Brown was the man right in the middle of it all.
The first baseman had driven in the first run of the game in the first inning, and in the ninth, he capped a three-run rally against reliever Suk Min. With two out and the bases loaded, Brown, fooled baldy on the second pitch, had fallen behind 0-2. He then fouled off three pitches before ripping a two-run single to left, giving the U.S. a 7-6 lead.
In the bottom of the ninth, Stevens came on and gave up a leadoff double to Keunwoo Jeong down the left-field line. "We had good reports on him," manager Davey Johnson said. "He's had a lot of pinch-hits lately. We didn't take him lightly."
Another pinch-hitter, Hyunsoo Kim, worked Stevens for a nine-pitch at-bat and wound up advancing the runner by grounding to second. In an odd twist, the Korean manager proceeded to pinch-hit for his next batter while in a 1-1 count. The pinch-hitter, Taekkeun Lee, then reached first on a fielder's choice because second baseman Jayson Nix (Rockies organization) had no choice but to throw home. The throw was offline and Jeong slid safely to tie the score at 7-7.
With Lee on first, Stevens then decided to throw over, but Brown, trying to get manager Davey Johnson's attention at the time so that they would be on the same page with his defensive positioning, and Stevens' throw sailed over Brown and far enough that Lee advanced to third base. Jongwook Lee followed with his game-winning sac fly.
"My ball club battled back, we got clutch hits, we were in position to close it out, but we gave up the double with two strikes on a hitter and then there was a miscommunication between my pitcher and the first baseman and he threw the ball away. That was the ball game," Johnson summarized in the interview room.
"Matt was motioning to the bench, he wanted to be a little off the bag. Jeff thought he was looking at him.
"You hate to lose. Once we came back, I felt good about our chances. ... It was their closer versus our closer, and it was one of those nights."
It was Korea's first victory over the U.S. in six Olympic meetings. The last time the two nations had matched up was at Sydney in 2000, a dramatic 3-2 U.S. victory in the semifinals on a one-out solo home run from Doug Mientkiewicz in the bottom of the ninth inning that lifted the U.S. into the gold medal game vs. Cuba. That was America's only gold in four Olympiads; Cuba won the other three.
A number of positives were wasted in this one. Mike Hessman's leadoff homer in the ninth got everything started. Giants farmhand Nate Schierholz, the last player added to the roster, hit his fifth homer (exhibitions included) since joining the U.S. squad. Jayson Nix and Hessman made a couple of textbook Major League plays to show their range. Dodgers farmhand Mike Koplove was strong in his inning of relief after starter Brandon Knight struggled.
The game featured a matchup of two pitchers who have had starting assignments for National League East teams back in the States, and both went 4 1/3 innings. Jung Bong, who pitched for the Braves in the 2002-03 seasons and with the Reds for part of 2004, allowed three earned runs and settled down after the first-inning score. Mets prospect Brandon Knight, the oldest member of the U.S. team (15th pro season), yielded six earned runs and was chased after giving up five consecutive hits in the fifth.
"He has been pitching better against left-handers, and (before this trip) he pitched against Canada, which has a lot of lefties," Johnson said. "Brandon got in trouble early, but I wasn't really that worried. He's a heck of a pitcher. It was just not one of his better outings."
Korea seemed shaky at the start. In the top of the second, Matt LaPorta reached when shortstop Jinman Park airmailed a routine 6-3 assist over the head of first baseman Seungyuop Lee.
Dongjoo Kim led of the second inning with a single and scored on a towering home run to left by designated hitter Daeho Lee, giving Korea a 2-1 lead. The U.S. team would never lead again, and it signaled bad things to come for Knight.
"We fought a very hard game, and it was our plan that we would do that," Korea manager Kyungmoon Kim said. "The players concentrated today and they won a good game. When the score was close our players never gave up."
The Extra Innings Rule seemed likely to enter play right off the bat. Instituted by the IBAF for these Games, it helps force an ending. If a game is tied after 10 innings, the manager will start the 11th by deciding which two consecutive batters in his order he wants to put on first and second base. The batter who immediately follows them then will be the leadoff man that inning. It will continue for each subsequent inning as necessary, but the 11th is the only time that the manager can arbitrarily choose which two he wants on base. After that it follows the order.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.