U.S. clinches berth in medal round
Fowler leads Americans to victory over Chinese Taipei
BEIJING -- Despite some tense moments along the way, the four favorites advanced from the original field of eight and will meet in Friday's semifinal games at the Summer Olympics on Friday: Korea, Cuba, the United States and Japan.
The U.S. clinched a place in the medal round Tuesday by rallying for a 4-2 victory over a Chinese Taipei team that personified the intense competition from top to bottom at the Games. All that remains are the exact matchups, which will be determined when all four teams play their seventh and final games of the preliminaries on Wednesday, including the U.S. vs. Japan at 7 p.m. local time (7 a.m. ET) at the Wukesong Main Field.
"We came halfway around the world to get to the medal round, and like I said early on, this is the best competition I've been involved in with the Olympics," said U.S. general manager Bob Watson. "You're going to have someone get into the semifinals with three losses. We've only got half of our work done. We've got some games to play against some tough clubs, and we'll have to play our A-game.
"I've heard a lot of people say they want to see us play Cuba for the gold medal. The way I look at it, we've got to play them all anyway. I just want to be there. I don't care who we play, as long as we've done our part to be there."
Korea beat Cuba on Tuesday to remain the only unbeaten team at 6-0. Cuba is 5-1. The U.S. and Japan are each 4-2. Korea will be the No. 1 seed, Cuba will be No. 2, and the other two clubs will decide their order of seeding with Wednesday's game. No. 1 will play No. 4 at 10:30 a.m. local time on Friday, and No. 2 will play No. 3 at 6 p.m. that day. The losers will play for the bronze medal at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, and the winners will meet at 6 p.m. that day to decide the gold and silver.
"This game was huge for us, because it alleviates some of the pressure going into [the Japan game], even though we're not just going to show up against them," said shortstop Jason Donald, who showed the representative emotion after getting to first base with an RBI single in the eighth that produced the final run. "The goal is to get in. Obviously we're not satisfied with the worst-case scenario of a bronze medal or no medal. We're going for the gold medal. That's why we're here."
Chinese Taipei struck first, when Chih-Sheng Lee led off the fifth inning with a double, was bunted over to third and scored on an error by first baseman Matt Brown. But the U.S. team answered immediately in the bottom of the inning, getting a run of its own on a leadoff triple by Dexter Fowler and an RBI double by Brian Barden.
The U.S. played this game without outfielder Matt LaPorta -- who will be unavailable against Japan because of the mild concussion he sustained when he was beaned Monday night against China. Yet the U.S., also missing second baseman Jayson Nix -- who expects to play in the medal round after being hit in the face by a pitch last Friday -- once again made up for a key absence, particularly in the outfield.
Nate Schierholtz threw out Chin-Feng Chen at home with a perfect peg from right to preserve a 1-1 score through the top of the sixth. Fowler was on base all four times, hitting a triple, double and single and drawing a walk. John Gall led off the sixth with a homer and the eighth with a double and run.
The sixth inning was decisive. After Schierholtz's big play in right, Gall led off the bottom of that inning with a homer over the wall in left-center. The U.S. never trailed again. Lou Marson walked, Donald sacrificed him over to second -- "I haven't had a sac bunt the whole year in Double-A and now I've had three here," Donald said -- and then Fowler slashed a double to left while hitting from the left side. That gave the U.S. a 3-1 lead and made an eventual winner out of Brandon Knight (1-0).
"Everybody on our team feels like we've earned it, because we battled in the trenches the last several days," Gall said. "It's been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the way this crowd is up every night, the competition being this top-notch. It has been intense. Every team we play is gunning for us. It's really amazing the talent across the world, and that was a great baseball team we just beat tonight."
In his second start of the Olympics, Knight was effective early, striking out five of the first seven batters he faced. Although he did not record a strikeout after the second inning, he was able to battle and keep Taipei from no more than two runs in the game.
"[Chinese Taipei] was what we expected and I was just very impressed [with them]," Knight said. "I think it is something that I have been through having played in Asia. They really do a good job of making adjustments. Their scouting is second to none and they really pay attention to what is going on.
"The first time through the order I was able to make some good pitches and get some swings and misses. But they made the adjustment. They started taking some good pitches and taking some good swings on others. I was impressed but I also wasn't surprised."
Chinese Taipei cut the U.S. lead to 3-2 when Chih-Sheng Lin answered Gall's leadoff homer with a leadoff clout of his own in the seventh. Knight stayed on to retire one more batter, and then Mike Koplove came in from the bullpen induced two groundouts to end the inning. He threw a 1-2-3 eighth to extend his Olympic perfection to 4 1/3 hitless innings. Kevin Jepsen got the save with a 1-2-3 ninth.
There were some tense moments early in this tournament, as the U.S. started 1-2 with tough losses to Korea and then Cuba sandwiched around a 9-0 win over the Netherlands. Some people might even have had a sudden doubt about whether the Americans were going to make it past the semifinal cut.
"There was never a doubt in my mind," Donald said. "There was not one guy who pushed the panic button here. We had to persevere. And we're in the medal round."
Now the baseball team has a chance to add to the U.S. overall lead in the medals standings. It will be gold, silver, bronze or zip. All of that remains to be seen, but the first objective has been accomplished.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.