Perfect delivery: Korea golden vs. Cuba
Missing in '04, team has 9-0 Olympics on Ryu, Lee's shoulders
BEIJING -- Perfection.
Korea played nine games at the Summer Olympics and won them all, the last one a 3-2 victory over Cuba that ensured the first baseball gold medal for that nation and the last baseball medal of any kind for at least eight years.
Cuba was presented with the silver medal, and the bronze was given to members of the United States team that had vanquished Japan, 8-4, in the day's earlier semifinal. It marks the end of a five-Olympiad run for baseball as an official event (it was a demonstration sport in 1984 and '88), as the International Olympic Committee has pulled the sport for 2012, and is reconsidering that decision for 2016.
"It may be bronze, but it feels like gold," U.S. outfielder Matt LaPorta said as he stood next to Korean winning pitcher and Olympic workhorse Hyunjin Ryu following the medal ceremony. "It was a huge honor just being here with the best players. What Korea did was amazing because there are so many great ballclubs here. To be able to win every game in this competition is special."
Waiting eight years to play in the Olympics is not foreign to Korea, which, like the U.S., did not qualify for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Korea's level of play gradually has improved, with a stellar semifinal qualifying performance at the first World Baseball Classic in 2006, and in these Olympics, the team just sailed.
The Koreans beat the U.S. in the tournament opener on a walk-off sacrifice fly in the ninth and never looked back. Beating the mighty Cubans not once, but twice, was a signal of Korean strength. Ryu -- menacing in size and teddy-bear friendly afterwards -- shut down the Cubans and came within two outs of a complete game. Taehyon Chong picked up the save, closing out the game with a double play.
"I stood in the field tonight and just had one goal in my mind, that was to win the gold medal," Ryu said. "I wanted to perform well throughout the game but at the end of the ninth inning I felt a little bit nervous."
His team's fans had to feel the same way. What a wild finish that was. Korea never trailed after 2006 World Baseball Classic sensation Seungyuop Lee hit yet another huge home run, this one making it a quick 2-0 in the first. The teams traded a run each along the way, with the ninth a nail-biter. Knowing Cuba's propensity for international flair on the diamond, it was obvious this would be a dramatic finish.
Hector Olivera opened the ninth with a single, and was sacrificed to second. Frederich Cepeda walked, and then Alexei Bell, who had hit a solo homer off Ryu in the seventh, also went to first on ball four to load the bases. That ball four was called by home-plate umpire Carlos Rey Cotto, though Korean catcher Minho Kang saw it differently. He went ballistic, was tossed from the game at the most crucial moment for the Korean national baseball team, and he fired maybe the hardest fastball of the night when he heaved his catcher's mitt at the Korea dugout wall on his way out.
The glove throw was unofficially clocked at about 99 mph.
"I'm very sorry that the umpire judged that it was a ball," Kang said. "I think it's not funny to joke about whether it is a ball or a strike in this final so I appealed, but I failed so I was ejected. But when I heard our team won the gold medal I felt very happy. I was not worried at all because I knew my ejection would lead to a more boosted morale on my team."
Indeed. Korea had to make a wild double-switch involving its entire battery. Kang was replaced behind the plate by Kabyong Jin. Ryu was replaced by Chong. Everything was on the line, and this was the Olympic powerhouse with the bases juiced. Cuba was in position to repeat gold, and get its fourth such medal in 16 years. It brought to the plate veteran Yuliesky Gourriel.
Double play, 6-4-3. It was fundamental baseball, the kind Korea executes especially well. It was perfection.
Just like this gold medal team.
"Tonight we faced a good pitcher -- he was really tough on the batters," Cuba manager Antonio Pacheco said. "And the last situation in the ninth inning, we were not able to execute, but that's baseball."
Pedro Luis Lazo pitched an inning in this game, following his extended relief outing to help block the U.S. from the gold shot. He was wearing his fourth Olympic medal around his neck, a remarkable accomplishment. Two silvers and two golds.
This one was silver.
"Silver is a fine medal," he said, showing it off. It says "BASEBALL" across the top of it. "We fought hard, and I think that it's a good medal."
LaPorta, who hit his second homer of the Olympics earlier in the day, was clear that bronze wasn't so bad, either.
"It didn't really sink in until I was up on the stage and they put the medal around your neck," said the player acquired by the Indians in the CC Sabathia deal with Milwaukee. "It was great. I'm going to remember it as the experience of a lifetime, and to play with these guys I am thankful. I am truly blessed."
Ryu was swarmed during the post-medal scene, and when asked what is on the back of his medal, he smiled and held it up and tried to take a big bite out of it. Korean media were all over, conducting TV interviews for back home. The guys in sky blue had taken their victory lap with flags around Wukesong Main Field, there was a new Olympic champion, and it was a perfect scene for them.
Nine starting players. Nine games. Nine wins. Perfect.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.