Undefeated Koreans Euphoric After Baseball Gold
By Kim Tong-hyung
Not long ago, suggesting South Korea could roll over the United States, Japan and Cuba for an Olympic baseball gold would have been considered as lunacy even by the most jingoistic local fan.
However, with manager Kim Kyung-moon's current squad doing just that, defeating Japan and Cuba twice before biting into Chinese gold, the Koreans will likely never again be excited about finishing second best in any tournament.
Lee Seung-yeop hit another huge home run, starter Ryu Hyun-jin limited a mighty Cuban lineup to two runs over 8 1/3 innings, and reliever Chong Tae-hyon worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth as the Koreans escaped as 3-2 winners in Saturday's final at Beijing's Wukesong Baseball Stadium.
It was the country's first Olympic baseball gold, and last for at least another eight years. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has pulled the sport for London in 2012, but says it could reconsider for 2016.
``A few days ago, I had a dream of giving interviews to news reporters naked," laughed the normally-reserved Kim, who admitted he would have been happy to settle for a bronze and never thought seriously about a gold before the tournament started.
``I didn't talk to anyone about the dream, as I wasn't sure it was a good omen or a bad one. Now, I guess I have to credit the dream for bringing me the gold," he said.
The Koreans, who rallied to defeat the United States 8-7 in a dramatic Olympic opener, completed their campaign with a 9-0 record that left them the only unbeaten team in Beijing.
Lee, one of the top power hitters of Asian professional baseball in the past decade, has endured a miserable 2008 season for Japan's Yomiuri Giants, but continued to be a game-changing presence wearing his country's colors.
After breaking a 3-for-25 slump with a two-run home run against Japan in Friday's semifinal, the sweet-swinging 32-year-old belted another two-run blast against the Cubans in the first as Korea jumped to a 2-0 lead.
However, Cuba responded immediately with a solo shot by Michel Enriquez in the bottom of the first off one of the rare mistakes by Ryu on the night.
The Koreans struggled to figure out Cuban starter Norberto Gonzalez, but had better luck against veteran reliever Pedro Luiz Lazo.
With two outs in the seventh, Cuban outfielder Alexi Bell dropped a blooper by Park Jin-man. After Park advanced to second after Lee Jong-wook coaxed a walk out of Lazo, Lee Yong-kyu, who hit .450 for the tournament, lashed a double of the right-field line that made the game 3-1.
However, Bell, clearly the best hitter of the tournament with a .520 batting average and a .960 slugging percentage, made up for his blunder with a solo homer in the following inning that cut the Cuban deficit to one.
Despite having Chong loosening up in the bullpen, Kim chose to stick with Ryu in the top of the ninth, with his fastball and changeup combination continuing to baffle Cuban hitters.
However, Ryu allowed an inning-opening single to Hector Olivera, who advanced to second on an Enriquez sacrifice. Then home plate umpire Carlos Rey Cotto suddenly seemed to deploy a reduced strike zone, which led Ryu to issue his first two walks of the game on close calls.
Catcher Kang Min-ho, briefly losing his cool, got tossed after arguing the fourth ball on Bell, violently throwing his glove and mask as he stormed back into the dugout.
With his team appearing to be headed for extra innings, or worse, settling for a sliver, Kim replaced Ryu with Chong to pitch to new catcher Jin Kab-yong, the team's original starter who had been nursing a thigh injury.
Pitching with the bases juiced, Chong, a submariner, displayed impressive poise, pitching two straight sliders in the zone against veteran Yuliesky Gourriel for a 0-2 count.
Then Chong hurled another slider that Gourriel turned into a dribbler to shortstop Ko Young-min, who started a 6-4-3 double play that sent his teammates, and the nation watching at home, into euphoria.
``My second pitch to Gourriel was a mistake right down the middle, but I felt confident after he didn't manage to touch it," said Chong, who extended a stellar reputation in international play that began in the 2004 Sydney Games.
``My mind went blank after the ball passed the mound to the second base. I can't believe we won it all," he said.
Lee, who hit just one home run for the Giants this year while spending extensive time in the Japanese minors, was tearful after his home run against Japan and seemed to have his swagger back after delivering once again in the gold medal match.
Lee, who still holds the Korean professional record with his 56-home run season in 2003, became a national hero by hitting five home runs and producing 10 RBIs in the World Baseball Classic in 2006. His performance in the Olympics, where he overcame adversity to come through when it mattered most, cements his status in the Korean sports pantheon.
``My younger teammates played so great, and this gold medal should be a tribute to them," said Lee.
The younger Koreans delivered indeed. Ryu's stellar performance against the Cubans followed his complete-game shutout against the Canadians that allowed the Koreans to escape with a 1-0 win.
And 20-year-old Kim Kwang-hyun, who was brilliant in his two starts against Japan, looks set to compete with fellow lefty Ryu, who is just a year older, over the title of the country's best pitcher.
And with Lee finding another basher in 26-year-old Lee Dae-ho, who led the tournament with three home runs and was second in RBIs with 10, to anchor the heart of the order, Beijing might prove as the international coming-out party for Korea's new generation of ballplayers.
The next test comes in the second World Baseball Classic scheduled for next spring, where the Koreans are surely to garner more respect from opponents as a world baseball power.