08/21/08 2:00 PM ET
Panda-monium for Olympic semis
USA to face tough competition in defending champs Cuba
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
On Thursday, as the Olympic baseball competition took its last off-day before the medal round begins, MLB.com discovered that the pandas were talking about the upcoming semifinals. Tao Tao, Duo Duo, Mei Xin, Cui Cui, Huan Huan, Lang Lang, Feng Yi and Fu Wa agreed to discuss Korea vs. Japan at 10:30 p.m. ET Thursday and United States vs. Cuba at 6 a.m. ET Friday, just over at Wukesong Cluster.
Cui Cui: It's like us -- too hard to distinguish many differences. Any of the four has an equal opportunity. There is no home-field advantage. All four clubs easily could be 7-0 after the preliminaries, although Korea is the only team that was unbeaten. Japan's team ERA was far lower than anyone's, and pitching wins pennants as you say back in the States. Cuba just knows how to play these international tournaments. It beat the USA in their last meeting, but Jayson Nix will be back after taking a pitch from Pedro Luis Lazo off the face, and the Americans are on a roll with four straight victories.
MLB.com: How will Stephen Strasburg do this time around?
Tao Tao: I'll take that one, because I've been following him more closely than the others. This guy is unbelievable. He just turned 20 last month and is the only player on the U.S. team not on a Minor League club. Now, he is pitching against Cuba for the chance to get the U.S. into the gold-medal game on Saturday night. Look for him to try to do exactly what he did against the Netherlands, when he threw seven scoreless innings -- keeping his fastball down, moving it inside and out, and setting up his slider. Look for Cuba to do what it does best -- trying to get inside your head, playing little games within the game, special antics. After Wednesday's game, Strasburg said, "Everybody knows they're going to try to do that. It's a veteran lineup, but I'm going to do what I do best."
MLB.com: What is the key to the U.S. advancing into the gold-medal game?
Duo Duo: OK, very funny. Pick me because it's about two guys. No question, the U.S. needs Mike Hessman and Matt LaPorta to step up offensively. Hessman was creaming every ball in sight during exhibition play and in the opener against Korea. But he hurt his heel in that first game, missed two games, and has gone 0-for-13 since, with a lot of strikeouts and a lot of runners left in scoring position. LaPorta had the three-run bomb to help Strasburg his last time out, but take that away and he is 0-for-14. The only key hit other than his homer was the one he put on China's catcher before being beaned.
Feng Yi: That's not even funny, Duo Duo. That was our catcher.
MLB.com: Give us one guy to watch from each of the remaining teams, especially for those fans who have been mostly glued to the Rays, Cubs and D-backs, and are just now ready to get into this medal round.
Mei Xin: We're kind of bummed that China is out, but at least we beat Taipei. And, of course, we've won a few gold medals outside of baseball so far. But if you want my opinion, keep an eye on Alexei Bell of Cuba, Dexter Fowler of the U.S., Yu Darvish of Japan and Wonsam Jang of Korea. Bell led all hitters in the preliminaries with a .520 average, hitting 13-of-25, and he was on base four times against the U.S., including a triple, a single and a walk. Fowler is a five-tooler who got hot the last few games, and he has been on base eight of his last nine chances. Darvish is Japan's ace and those two innings against the U.S. just warmed him up. He's ready to pitch big. Jang is a lefty who led everyone by throwing 12 1/3 scoreless innings, facing 44 batters.
MLB.com: We noticed that they don't have ballpark dogs at Wukesong, but they do have people who blow whistles the entire game without stopping. Is that real baseball?
Lang Lang: I asked them to sell bamboo dogs, but they don't usually listen to us. They just come here and take pictures and try to get us to have more pandas. I heard about the whistles. You are lucky they don't have whistles in the Majors.
MLB.com: Let's say the U.S. avenges its loss a week earlier to Cuba. Let's say Japan avenges its loss to Korea. What happens then? Will it be any different than softball, where the U.S. women were shocked by Japan?
Huan Huan: The two losers on Friday will meet in the bronze-medal game at 10:30 p.m. ET on Friday. The two winners will play for the gold and silver in the 6 a.m. ET Saturday. If it's Japan and the U.S., then you would have the two top pitching teams in this tournament, the two top fielding teams, and it would be the kind of drama that we missed on Wednesday when the game turned into an anticlimactic seed-placement game. It would be fun to see the U.S. and Japan play a high-intensity game. But it would also be fun to see a rematch of any of these four teams' preliminary games. You can't go wrong. We're looking forward to it here.
MLB.com: Any other thoughts about the medal round?
Feng Yi: Yeah, Lazo looks like a big teddy bear to us. They all do.
MLB.com: Who do you like in the World Series?
Duo Duo: Cubs!
Lang Lang: He always does that.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.