08/18/08 4:16 PM ET
More tension than expected for U.S.
Americans beat China handily but on-field events stand out
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
Matt LaPorta (Indians Double-A outfielder) became the latest prized MLB prospect to get hit in the head with a fastball and be taken to a hospital, joining Jayson Nix (Rockies Triple-A second baseman) for that dubious distinction in a 9-1 preliminary victory on Monday over China that was as eventful as it was lopsided.
LaPorta, the outfielder who was Cleveland's key acquisition in the trade that sent CC Sabathia to the Brewers, was beaned two innings after he bowled over China's catcher and knocked him out of the game with a left knee injury. LaPorta underwent a CAT scan, suffered a mild concussion and will be assessed daily according to USA Olympic Team Chief Medical Officer Dr. William Kuprevich.
"He told me, 'I'm OK, I'm OK,'" U.S. manager Davey Johnson said of LaPorta, whose only hit in these Games was the big three-run homer to help win the second game against the Netherlands. "I said, 'No, you're going to the hospital.'"
Nix was hit above the left eye in the last inning of the Cuba game on Friday and said he is recovering well enough that he might return during medal play should the U.S. (3-2) advance -- which it will do if it beats Chinese Taipei at 7 p.m. local time on Tuesday. In addition, Mike Hessman (Tigers Triple-A third baseman) finally returned to the lineup against China after being out since the opener with a heel injury sustained running the higher-than-normal Mizuno bases against Korea.
This was a wild game between the two nations competing for the most overall medals in the Olympics, and it had the ugly potential to turn into a large-scale incident. There were six hit batsmen, two injured players required medical care, China's head coach (Jim Lefebvre), his assistant coach and a reliever were each ejected, the predominantly local crowd booed the U.S. after not one, but two, of their catchers were bowled over at home, and probably the most amazing thing happened at the very end.
In the ninth inning, with nothing on the line, Yang Yang crushed a Blaine Neal fastball over the left-center wall to make it 9-1. Yang is the son of Yang Zhongde, a member of the groundskeeping crew who worked on the field after the teams walked off. Yang backs up Wei Wang, who was taken out by LaPorta in the fifth after Taylor Teagarden doubled to right and brought him around from first to give the U.S. a 4-0 lead.
Hollywood might want to look into this one. Yang was hit even harder at home than Wang was, knocked practically into the stands by Nate Schierholtz after blocking the plate on a sacrifice fly. When the homer was struck off Neal in the ninth, Yang remembered it all and celebrated a moment of pride that will last a lifetime. He acted like Kirk Gibson rounding the bases, leaping into the Beijing sky and landing with a stomp on home plate for China's lone run.
China has learned how to play baseball in the last five years. Moments like that one, while seemingly incidental in the grand scheme of China's runaway gold-medal machine here, are little building blocks to grow legends and inspire others.
"From the bottom of my heart, I am happy," his father said through a translator while the field was being watered later. Yang Zhongde's smile belied the final score as well as the tournament standings. "You can feel that my son is extremely happy," he said.
The Americans are extremely happy to be on the brink of a medal round. Especially after the way they squandered opportunities in the first half of this game -- leaving two men on in four of the first five innings. Its goal of playing "knockout ball" -- utilizing the 10-run mercy rule and saving its pitching staff some work -- has been fruitless so far. The biggest problem for the U.S. in this game was the abundance of at-'em balls -- line drives hit right "at 'em" for hard-luck outs in key situations.
It seemed obvious that the dam would break, and it did starting in the fifth. Dodgers Triple-A first baseman Terry Tiffee, the top hitter at these Olympics with a .500 average (8-for-16) entering the night, tied Brett Abernathy's U.S. Olympic record for doubles (six) set at the 2000 Games in Sydney by smashing one to the gap in left center. With two out, John Gall doubled him in, and LaPorta was walked.
Then Teagarden stroked a double to the corner in right. Gall scored, and LaPorta was thundering around third behind him. Rather than sliding, LaPorta did what looked a lot like a hockey player checking an opponent into the boards. Wang went flying, LaPorta touched the plate, and it was a 5-0 game. The catcher's first reaction was to protest the call, thinking he had tagged out LaPorta. But then Wang went down, and was writhing in pain before eventually being forced to come off the field with assistance.
"We not only lost our catcher for the game, but maybe for the rest of the tournament," Lefebvre said. "When you come in and have a collision at home, you never hit someone in the chest. They should have thrown [LaPorta] out at that point."
Lefebvre and Johnson played against each other during the Dodgers-Orioles World Series won by Baltimore in 1966.
"What I remember most about that World Series is that the Dodgers were supposed to sweep us," says Johnson, whose Baltimore team did the sweeping despite a Lefebvre homer in Game 1. "I remember Jimmy as a hard-nosed player. I was a little surprised he was reacting to the first [home-plate collision], because his catcher blocked home plate. But I understand where he was coming from, because he had just lost his catcher.
"Emotions run high in the game of baseball. Jimmy's done a great job with this team. I thought they looked like a formidable team up there."
Without Lefebvre around, things got even more interesting the next inning. Schierholtz led off with a walk and then moved to third on Matt Brown's double. Tiffee -- unquestionably the U.S. team's MVP to date and always in the middle of something big -- flied to center and Schierholtz started bolting for home.
For some reason, China's first baseman cut off the perfect throw toward the plate. It would have been very close. Then he relayed it to Yang, the substitute catcher. Schierholtz was a steaming locomotive, and he plastered Yang.
This time the crowd was more than agitated, and Lefebvre was ejected. It got loud, and tension filled the air. At a time like this back in a normal Major League or Minor League game, the benches might have emptied. Not here, with USA vs. China.
"We're not here to fight or start anything," Schierholtz said.
As for his play at the plate, he explained it this way:
"It was a close game, 4-0 at the time, the outfielder was playing really shallow, and Terry singles. The guy cuts it off. I knew it would be close, and the catcher was blocking the plate, so I did what I had to do. If they didn't cut the ball off, it would have been a close play and no one would have said anything. He was blocking the plate, and that's the bottom line."
It may have been the bottom line, but it wasn't the end of it.
LaPorta led off in the seventh, and the memory of his play at the plate was fresh in China's minds. He was immediately drilled on the helmet, and the thudding sound reverberated throughout the ballpark. Nix was over in the U.S. dugout, the bandage off his face but the memory of his bloody face fresh for everyone.
Remarkably, benches still did not empty. The Chinese pitcher, Chen Kun, was immediately ejected, and so was the assistant coach, Steve Ontiveros, because both benches had been given a warning. That's three Chinese ejections.
"Pitching inside is part of the game," Johnson said. "We nicked a couple of their batters. Jake hit a couple of their jerseys. My guys got hit pretty hard [Jason Donald was hit two straight times]. They were trying to pitch my hitters inside. Guys can get hit. My guys accept it that way. Six batters were hit in this game. That was not a typical game."
Not lost in this contest was the performance by starter Jake Arrieta. The only Class A player on the roster (Fredericksburg in the Orioles organization), Arietta made his first appearance in the Olympics and showed no signs of rust. In his six scoreless innings pitched, he allowed a runner to reach second only once -- in the second inning, after a single and walk -- and then got the last out looking.
"I think the reason I was successful was because I had pretty good command of my fastball," Arrieta said. "In the later innings I was throwing breaking balls for strikes and I think I could have done a little better job of throwing more off-speed pitches earlier on in the count. The big thing that helped me today was the command of my fastball to overpower hitters with it and using the off-speed when I had to."
Mike Koplove and Casey Weathers each hurled one inning of scoreless relief, and Neal had just the one classic dent from the bat of Yang. The four U.S. pitchers combined for 12 strikeouts, the third-highest by the U.S. in Olympics history.
Cuba and Korea are each 5-0 and guaranteed a spot in the semifinal round; they play each other on Tuesday in what probably will determine who is seeded No. 1 in Friday's semifinals.
The eight-team field will be reduced to four after Wednesday, ranked on won-lost record (head-to-head is the first tiebreaker), and the key for the U.S. will be avoiding an upset loss against Chinese Taipei. That club is 1-4, as are Canada, The Netherlands and now China. Thursday will be a rest day, and the medal games are Saturday.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.