Quest Begins for Last Baseball Gold
By Kim Tong-hyung
South Korea has always touted itself as a world baseball power, and there wouldn't be a better way to gain respect than by claiming the gold in possibly the last Olympic baseball tournament ever.
However, manager Kim Kyung-moon's team faces a difficult opponent to begin its bid for history when it opens against the mighty United States in round-robin Olympic play Wednesday.
The match features two Olympic favorites, with Japan and Cuba expected to be the other major contenders, and Kim would love to draw first blood against an opponent he might meet again deeper into the tournament.
Korea can't afford to lose any game cheaply when a tough schedule has it playing Canada, Japan, Taiwan and Cuba in consecutive games from Friday to Aug 19. The top four in the eight-team tournament advance to the semifinals scheduled for Aug. 22, a day before the gold medal game.
Kim, the Doosan Bears' skipper who was an All-Star catcher in his playing days, loves to engage in pitching matchups as much as anyone and says he plans to ``fully mobilize" his bullpen to give U.S. hitters different looks and keep them off balance.
Predictably, Kim is refusing to announce his starter, who will be asked to handle three or four innings, as he wants to keep other teams guessing.
``Obviously, the starting pitcher will be under enormous pressure to deliver a strong outing against the U.S., but I think our bullpen is deep enough to secure a win for us," Kim said.
A concern for Kim is that his starting rotation is heavy with lefties, which could be a problem against a U.S. batting order predominant with right-handed bats.
The Americans are second to none in terms of firepower, featuring a dangerous lineup anchored by slugger Matt LaPorta, the new jewel of the Cleveland Indians' farm system acquired in the CC Sabathia trade, and other top minor league prospects like Dexter Fowler and Mike Hessman.
LG Twins lefty Bong Jung-keun, a former Cincinnati Reds flameout, looks like a logical choice to start against the United States as he has always shown the ability to get right-handed batters out.
The 28-year-old is 8-7 this season and leads the Korean league in strikeouts (107) and is fifth in ERA (2.94). Kim also believes that Bong's wealth of experience in American baseball could be a plus.
Bong looked solid in a scrimmage against the Cuban national team earlier this month, fanning seven in four scoreless innings.
SK Wyverns ace Kim Kwang-hyun, a lefty armed with a 150kmph fastball and a big, 12-to-6 curve, and the Hanwha Eagles' Ryu Hyun-jin, another lefty, are the other candidates to start against the United States.
Wyverns reliever Chung Dae-hyun, a submariner who had past success against the United States in international tournaments, and Samsung Lions closer Oh Seung-hwan are penciled as the late-inning shutdown options.
Shutting down the U.S. lineup is one thing, scoring against the U.S. pitchers is another. U.S. skipper Davey Johnson, who won the 1986 World Series as a manager for the New York Mets, hasn't announced his starter against Korea.
Kim is hoping that it's not Stephen Strasburg, projected as a high first-round pick in next year's Major League Baseball (MLB) draft. The San Diego State right-hander made national headlines with his 23-strikeout performance against Utah in April. Other possible starters include Jake Arrieta and Jeremy Cummings.
Kim is hoping that Yomiuri Giants first baseman Lee Seung-yeop could return to his home run-bashing self after spending time in the Japanese minors earlier this year.
Bears outfielder Lee Jong-wook and the Kia Tigers' Lee Yong-kyu add speed and hitting prowess at the top of the order.
Lotte Giants slugger Lee Dae-hon and Bears third baseman Kim Dong-joo will protect Lee at the heart of the order.
An Olympic defeat against the United States inflicted by Roy Oswalt and Doug Mientkiewicz in Sydney is still a stinging memory for the Koreans, who had to settle for the bronze and were spectators when Ben Sheets dominated the Cubans in the gold medal game.