I just saw one of the best, most dramatic and meaningful baseball games in a long time this morning, South Korea vs. Cuba in the gold medal match of the Beijing Olympics. Let me try to setup the stage for you. Cuba is to international baseball like Brazil is to World Cup soccer, perennial powerhouse. The three favorites to medal were Japan, Cuba, and the United States, so South Korea according to odds makers, wasn’t even suppose to medal. Somehow, South Korea improbably won 8 straight games including defeating Japan in the semi-finals one day prior. Cuba defeated the United States in the semis losing only once to South Korea in regular play and looking to avenge their loss. And Cuba easily has the best hitters in the game, some good enough for the Major Leagues, but South Korea has dominant pitching, especially today’s champ and Korean Ace, Ryu Hyun-jin. (more on Ryu later)
Today’s gold medal game was one of those tight, low-scoring affairs, where every run mattered. I really only caught the game from the 6th inning on because it started at 6am EST. It seemed like every inning, multiple Cubans were on base but the starting pitcher Ryu had a knack for getting out of trouble. In the final frame, with South Korea up by only one run, things started to get really weird. The umpire, from Puerto Rico, decided to liven things up a bit by mixing up the strike zone and calling pitches from Ryu balls instead of strikes even though similar pitches were called strikes all night. This lead to Ryu giving up a hit and walking two guys to load the bases with only one out in the 9th inning. At this point, I thought South Korea’s improbabe gold medal run was pretty much over because Cuba’s best hitter, Alexei Bell, nicknamed the Cuban missle and most likely will be MVP of the Olympics, was coming up next and he had a hit home run of Ryu in the previous at bat.
Before that even happened, the South Korean catcher, Kang Min-ho argued with the umpire about the last walk and one minute later, was ejected from the game. I’ve watched a lot of baseball in my life and I’ve never seen that. Umpires are supposed to give a lot of latitude in the final inning of the championship game whether in the Major Leagues or the Olympics. It’s just how it is. They’re not suppose to decide the game, the players are. This umpire did and I thought, what a sucky way for South Korea to lose.
So the starting catcher gets ejected and the South Korean manager, Kim Kyung-moon, decided to put in a new pitcher as well. Odds are, the Cubans should score in this situation. I completely expected them to at least tie the game because the momentum had shifted so strongly. As the new pitcher, Chong Tae-hyon, warmed up, I saw that he was one of those submarine, underhand delivery style pitcher. Great… There’s a reason why not many guys use that style, it’s just not really effective. First pitch from Chong, strike. Second pitch, strike. If Chong strikes out Bell here, odds dramatic shift back towards South Korea. Third pitch, Bell hit a shot up the middle into a game-ending double play. That was the ideal situation for South Korea and the ideal was also the reality this time. Honestly, it was really lucky for South Korea, but you can’t go undefeated in the Olympics in baseball by just being good. Cuba is the only other team to have done that in Olympic history, which they did twice. Great game, definitely a classic for me!
My other thoughts from this game are, Ryu Hyun-jin and Alexi Bell are good enough to be stars in the Major Leagues. I hope to see them there one day. Also, does it make any sense to you that Baseball is removed from the 2012 Olympics, but trampoline and BMX racing stays in? It doesn’t make sense to me, so I need to look into why that is.