08/19/08 4:23 PM ET
Showdown of phenoms put on hold
U.S. to push back Strasburg a round; Japan throwing Darvish
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
Stephen Strasburg vs. Yu Darvish is on hold.
Strasburg, the San Diego State junior and possible No. 1 overall Draft pick next June, flirted with a no-hitter and wound up with 11 strikeouts and one hit allowed in seven shutout innings last Thursday in the American's 9-0 victory over the Netherlands and was excited to make a huge start against Japan in this final preliminary game. He will now most likely be pushed back to either the 10:30 a.m. or 6 p.m. game on Friday, while Trevor Cahill, who started and had a no-decision last Friday in the loss to Cuba, is expected to be on the mound against Japan instead.
Japan, however, will be pitching their phenom, Yu Darvish, the 6-foot-5, Iranian-Japanese right-hander who turned 22 on Saturday. Darvish pitched Japan's opener of the tournament and had a no-decision in the 4-2 loss to Cuba. He allowed four earned runs in four innings. It would have been fun to watch. Maybe it will be a Major League marquee matchup one day. For now, the U.S. is holding off on Strasburg until the medal round. In the case of the U.S., there also will be some extra recovery time for Jayson Nix and Matt LaPorta, both of whom sustained head injuries after being struck by pitches. Thursday is a rest day in the baseball competition, followed by the semifinals.
In the day games, Cuba plays China at 10:30 a.m. and Korea plays the Netherlands at 11:30 a.m. Assuming Cuba and Korea each win those last preliminary games, Korea would be the No. 1 seed in the semis and Cuba would be No. 2. That means the U.S. and Japan will know what matchup is on the line when their first pitch is thrown. No. 1 will play No. 4, and No. 2 will play No. 3. So if those two semifinalists win their day games, and if the U.S. beats Japan, then there's your U.S.-Cuba rematch on Friday.
The 1-4 game will be played at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, and 2-3 will be at 6 p.m. that night. The losers of those two games will play for the bronze medal starting at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, and the two winners of those semifinals will meet at 6 p.m. to decide who gets the gold and who gets the silver. It's all getting much clearer now.
After clinching a semifinal spot with the 4-2 victory over Chinese Taipei on Tuesday, several members of the U.S. team discussed how opponents were lining up to foil an American dream in these Olympics.
"Everybody in this tournament has been good," said Brandon Knight, who started his second Olympics contest and picked up the win this time. "You never know what you're going to get. We're in a tough situation where everyone is gunning for us. It just makes us better."
Japan and the U.S. have had nearly identical results in this competition. Both lost to Korea and Cuba. This will be the first significant meeting between U.S. and Japan national teams since that controversial victory by the U.S. at the World Cup -- an inaugural event that Japan eventually won. They won't have Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka or Kosuke Fukudome this time, however. The Japan League has basically the same approach as the U.S. since its season is under way, but it does permit a couple of players from top-level rosters -- such as Darvish, who plays for the Ham Fighters there -- to participate in these Olympics.
Japan beat China on Tuesday with the 10-run mercy rule. That means Japan now has 28 runs for and 10 against. By comparison, the U.S. has an Olympics-best 36 runs for and 20 against. Japan entered the China game with the tournament's best team ERA, 1.84. Entering the China game, Japan's top hitter in this tournament was Norichika Aoki, who was 7-for-20 (.350).
One player to keep an eye on for the Americans is Mike Hessman. At the start of the tournament, he was knocking the cover off every ball. He hit a home run in the ninth inning of the opener against Korea to start a rally that gave the Americans the lead for a bit, and the ball rolled to a stop 630 feet from home plate on the practice field.
Hessman, a third baseman for the Tigers' Triple-A affiliate in Toledo, injured a heel while running the larger-than-normal Mizuno bases, and a sore heel kept him out of action for a few games. He has returned for the past two and perhaps because of rust, he has had major problems with runners on base.
Against Chinese Taipei, Hessman was 0-for-4 and ended three innings, leaving men on first and third in the first and then first and second in the fifth. The night before, against China, he was 0-for-4 and left men on first and third in the first, on first and second in the third, on second in the fifth, and on second in the sixth.
That's six of eight at-bats in which he had at least one baserunner in scoring position and came up empty. Hessman also ripped a couple of booming foul balls, and don't be surprised to see him suddenly break out against Japan. That's one bat that the Americans will need to make a lot of noise during the medal round.
Perhaps the Major League organization that should be most proud of its representatives is the Dodgers. Terry Tiffee has continued to be around the top with the batting leaders in the Olympics, sharing the batting lead of .500 (10-for-20) with Cuba's Alexei Bell entering Tuesday night's game and then going 1-for-3 against Chinese Tapei. Right-hander Mike Koplove has been stellar in middle relief when needed, coming in Tuesday to get the last two outs in the seventh and then throwing a 1-2-3 eighth.
These Games have been memorable for many things, and one of them is the rarity of opposing pitchers throwing over 90-mph against the U.S. Chinese Taipei's final reliever, Chin-Hui Tsao, walked his first batter but then struck out Brian Barden and Nate Schierholtz, hitting 91 on the board. For the most part, it's been in the high-70s and -80s by pitchers facing the attacking U.S. lineup. That has been a mild concern, because the U.S. hitters will be going back to pro teams where pitchers throwing in the 90s are common, and it would not be surprising to see a little rust in readjusting to that heat.
"We've seen sidearm guys, something different every day," said John Gall, whose home run to lead off the sixth on Tuesday was a catalyst. "It was good to score off their starter [in the fifth], and then get him out of the game. Pedro Luis Lazo was getting up into the 90s for Cuba when we played them. But that hasn't happened often here."
Darvish does it. So does Strasburg. One day they are likely to have a pitching showdown. That won't happen on Wednesday.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.