Ryu Getting Call Against Cubans
South Korea's ambitions for its first ― and probably last ― Olympic baseball gold rest heavily on the shoulders of Ryu Hyun-jin, who is expected to take the ball against Cuba in Saturday's gold medal game.
The Koreans, the only unbeaten team in the tournament, rallied to defeat Japan 6-2 in Friday's semifinals to earn a rematch against the Cubans, who they defeated in the preliminaries.
Ryu, the 21-year-old Hanwha Eagles lefty, became the country's first player to pitch an Olympic shutout when he blanked Canada last week for a 1-0 win.
Korean manager Kim Kyung-moon is counting on Ryu to repeat his performance against a mighty Cuban lineup that features the tournament's top players in batting average, RBIs, slugging percentage and runs scored.
``They have an abundance in power and many of the players have great bat speed," Ryu said about the Cuban hitters.
``I will try to prevent myself from relying too much on my fastball and use my off-speed pitches in crucial counts," he said. ``They are great hitters and I don't expect to hold them hitless, but I will try to keep the ball down and try not to allow extra-base hits.''
Ryu will be counted on to hold down the Cuban lineup for five to six innings, and Kim will be ready to throw in every pitcher aside of Friday's starter Kim Kwang-hyun, who limited Japan to two runs over eight innings.
Lefty Jang Won-sam and closer Chong Tae-hyon have been pitching well in the tournament, and Song Seung-joon, who started against the Cubans last week, could also appear in a relief role.
The Cubans, as witnessed by their 10-2 spanking of the United States in Friday's other semifinal, are capable of lighting up the scoreboard in a hurry.
Giorbis Duvergel provides speed and extra-base power as Cuba's leadoff batter, and Yuliesky Gurriel, Frederich Cepeda and Bell Alexei, who was batting .520 with a .960 slugging percentage after seven games, combine for a murderous heart of the order.
As evidenced by Alfredo Despaigne, the tournament's RBI leader with 11, usually batting seventh in the order, there is not a weak spot in the Cuban lineup.
The Koreans defeated the Cubans 7-4 in their first meet in the tournament, so Kim doesn't think his players will be intimidated against the three-time Olympic champions.
Kim likes the firepower of his own lineup, anchored by Lee Dae-ho, who leads the tournament with three home runs and is second with 10 RBIs, while teammates Kim Hyun-soo and Lee Yong-kyu are hitting over .400.
Lee Seung-yeop's two-run home run against Japan, which broke a 3-for-25 slump, has the Yomiuri Giants first baseman rediscovering his swagger.
``I am proud that we reached the finals and gave an impression to other countries that we play good baseball," said Kim.
``The locker room atmosphere is great. We will enter tomorrow's match confidence of winning the gold medal," he said.
Cuba hasn't announced its starter for the final, although Elier Sanchez, who has yet to give up a run in the tournament, looks like a logical option.
The gold medal match will start at 7 p.m. at Beijing's Wukesong Baseball Stadium and will be televised by the Korea's national television channels KBS, MBC and SBS.