Saturday, August 23, 2008

Final Thoughts From Beijing, as Team USA Captures Bronze

By: Dick Cooke
8:30 a.m. - No scout meeting today as we have a 10:30 game, and we just played Japan Wednesday. We're certain they will pitch ace right-hander Darvish, who we saw for the first two innings that day.

9:15 a.m. - BP in the cages. Hitters wander in and out, each taking a varying number of swings off of Roly and I. They certainly appear relaxed. Laporta and Nix are both in the lineup today. It's Nix' first game since Cuba (our 3rd game), and Laporta's first since getting hit in the head against China in our fifth game.

10:30 a.m. - First pitch. And, in keeping with theme of this tournament, nothing is as we expected. Japan won the coin toss last night to determine home and visitor today, and elected to be the visitor. And on top of that, they choose to start left-hander Wada against us, who has pitched very well in this tourney. Perhaps Darvish is injured, or perhaps he'll be the first one out of the pen or perhaps, given their coin flip decision, we have no idea why Wada is starting.

Things don't begin well, as Brett Anderson gives up a one-out home run to Araki, but in the bottom of the second, but Laporta makes his first at-bat a big one with a home run deep into the right-field bleachers. He was 1-for-15 coming in and was pulling off of everything. A nice adjustment.

Japan jumps back on top in the third with a two-out, three-run homer after two walks, and suddenly it's 4-1. Anderson is visibly angry with himself. In the bottom half, Barden reaches on a misplay by the Japanese second baseman and right fielder. Nix walks and, with one out, Matt Brown hits a 3-2 slider way into the left field seats to tie it at four.

Brett Anderson has started all but three hitters off with fastballs thus far, and the Japanese hitters are looking comfortable. Thankfully, he changes patterns some at this point, mixes his pitches better and puts up zeros through seven. He has four quality pitches, and his fastball and slider, by major-league standards, are "plus" pitches. He needs to throw his slider more as a first pitch, as that is his best percentage strike pitch. He looks like the Brett Anderson we expect through the seventh.

Things look up for us in the bottom of the fifth, as Taylor Teagarden comes up with maybe the biggest hit of the tournament for us - a two- out, two-run double to right center, scoring Schierholtz and Brown.

Jason Donald follows with a line-drive home run off of the left field foul pole, and we're up 8-4. Donald, who had just two hits in six exhibition games, is our leading hitter and probably our MVP.

Kevin Jepson comes in for Anderson in the eighth for a two-inning close out - the first time we've tried to do this in the tournament. After a strikeout, he gives up a single, and then gets a huge 4-6-3 double play. Nix makes a nice stop of a tough hop to start the DP, and it's his third outstanding defensive play of the game and why he will have a long pro career. He was our MVP at the World Cup in November so it's great to see him contribute again in a big game for us after missing most of the tourney.

Bottom of the eighth and - guess who - it's Darvish on to pitch for Japan. We threaten with runners at the corners, but Nix is thrown out at home on an attempted double steal, and it's a four-run lead for the US going into the ninth.

But Jepson decides to not allow anyone to leave early. He walks the lead-off hitter in a 12-pitch at-bat, and then the next hitter inexplicably swings at a 2-0 fastball and grounds to short. Donald bobbles it for a moment, and we only get one out. A pop-up to Teagarden for out two, and then a single. A wild pitch, and it's second and third. This is much more up in the air than it should be. On a 2-1 fastball Terry Tiffee fields a tough hop at first, steps on the bag, we exhale, and we have won the bronze.

Relief in the dugout and congratulations all around. We see smiles that haven't been there since Wednesday.

8:30 p.m. - We hop on a van to go back to the stadium for the medal ceremony following the gold medal game.

Korea defeats Cuba 3-2, as Cuba grounds into a tournament ending 6-4-3 double play with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, right after the Korean catcher had been ejected for arguing balls and strikes.

After things settle down, the three teams take the stand and are presented their medals. It's a very nice ceremony and not too long. Our guys are appropriately proud, the Koreans are ecstatic - they were undefeated - and, meanwhile, most of the Cubans remove their silver medals as soon as they get into the dugout.

Our players, coaches and staff gather on the field for final congratulations, handshakes and hugs. This will be the final time when our entire group will be together. Most of us will fly together tomorrow, but a few head out early to west coast destinations. We'll be a bit scattered on Sunday.

Bronze was not our goal, but we are very proud of the fact we have won a medal and of the way our guys battled when they were down. The medal makes the total experience of China and the trip home much different.

Davey says that they will rarely if ever feel the type of pressure they felt today, trying to hold on to the lead to win the bronze. Every player said that, througout the tournament, they have never been this nervous on a baseball field. This will only serve to help them in their professional careers.

The rundown on China: Wonderful, helpful people; magnificant sites; wonderful architecture; Beijing is big, clean and beautiful (and a little smoggy at times); the food and language were major challenges; the cab rides became more reliable as the time went on. They put on a great show.

All of the players were great to be around. Everyone got along, they showed maturity, they appreciated all that was done on their behalf and were a pleasure to deal with on and off the field.

My family had a once in a lifetime experience that I'm glad to have been able to share with them.

I want to publicly thank Jim Murphy, Tom Ross and the Davidson College community for allowing me to partake in this and my other USA baseball experiences. They will never be forgotten.

P.S. - The Cookes made it home safely on an earlier flight Sunday, and I returned later without incident. All the travel was smooth, but I did take an unfortunate 0-for-2 as I am without my luggage as I write this from home.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Wheels Come off Late, as Cuba Defeats Team USA 10-2 in Semifinals

By: Dick Cooke
10 a.m.  - The Cookes head to the Hometown Hopefuls hospitality center in downtown Beijing, which is run by Bank of America as a place for USA athletes, coaches and staff to go hang out, eat good food and watch Olympic events on multiple big screen TVs.

We experience vintage Beijing traffic on our cab ride, so by the time we arrive I have less than one hour before I need to get back for our scout meeting.

Adjacent to the Bank of America building is the USA House, and we have day passes so we spend some money in the store grabbing some nice USA attire. Unfortunately, they are not using Chinese pricing.

Susan and the girls stay at the Bank of America facility relaxing, meeting some USA athletes and watching Olympic events. I catch up with our USOC van and head back to the hotel.

2 p.m.  - Scout meeting for our semi-final game with Cuba, and it's fairly short, as we just played them last Saturday. We know they will throw right-hander Vera. He's an El Duque clone, who just happens to top out at 94 mph. He's a veteran, and he can pitch.

They will try and get the game to Lazo, who pitched six innings against us in the first game. We're going with college phenom Strasburg, who must pitch inside and throw his slider for strikes to have a chance.

After the scouts leave, Davey talks with us about the lineup. Nix and Laporta both have the go-ahead from the docs, but Davey will not start them, as he wants them to go through a complete workout before he starts them again. They will be available off of the bench. The lineup will basically stay the same.

3 p.m. - Van to Wukesong

4:20 p.m. - BP

6 p.m. - First pitch.

The script for Cuba could not work out better. Vera is outstanding. His fastball velocity ranges from 84 to 93 mph - by design, he alters speeds on his slider, throws a 72-74 mph curveball and a very good change-up.

He sinks his fastball at times, gets guys to chase four-seamers up out of the strike zone; a masterful job, as he goes six innings, when he turns it over to Lazo.

Strasburg is not as sharp as he was against the Netherlands. He doesn't pitch inside as much as perhaps he should, and leaves after four innings having allowed six hits and three runs, two of which were earned.

Cuba likes the ball out over the plate, and they drive some good velocity fastballs into the right-center gap. He doesn't walk anyone, but his command in the zone is not good, and he isn't effective on the inside half of the plate.

We score one in the fourth on a sac fly by Matt Brown, which plates Barden, and then get another in the fifth on a broken-bat single by Donald, which scores Lou Marson who had reached on an "I've got it, you take it" double.

Brian Duensing comes on to pitch in the fifth, and he, too, appears to not go to his strengths enough and gives up a monster home run to left fielder Cepada in the sixth on a letter-high change-up that is two rows from completely leaving the stadium. 4-2, Cuba, and the game doesn't have a good feel to it, as we don't look comfortable at the plate.

Lazo comes on in the seventh for Cuba, and Mike Koplove for the US. Koplove pitches a scoreless seventh, and he has been flawless since a very bad outing in the first exhibition game versus Canada back in Cary.

It's still 4-2 in the eighth when things fall apart for us. Jeff Stevens on to pitch, and he gives up a one-out three run homer to Cuban right-fielder Bell on a hanging slider. Blaine Neal comes in to pitch and, after a rare error by third baseman Mike Hessman and a single, Cuban catcher Pestano lines a home run just inside the left-field foul pole to make it 10-2.

We get a couple of guys on to lead off the ninth, and then Lazo decides to turn it up a notch, and he unleashes some 94 mph fastballs and 86 mph exploding sliders the likes of which we have not seen from him in a few years.

Lou Marson strikes out to end it, and we quietly move to the bronze medal game versus Japan tomorrow morning at 10:30. We didn't pitch well, they did, they hit four home runs, we struggled at the plate, and you just can't survive that way against a quality team like Cuba. They beat us in every way.

It's a very, very quiet clubhouse and ride back to the hotel and village. Everyone is mentally and emotionally drained. We know the players will feel this disappointment for a while, but they are professionals and we expect and need them to come out ready to play tomorrow morning.

It all hinges on our guy on the mound. Brett Anderson will get the nod, and if he's on, then we have a chance. We will face Japan's ace Darvish, who threw the first two innings against us Wednesday night, and he is probably the best pitcher in the tournament with a plus fastball and three quality off-speed pitches. Nothing is easy.

We'll hit in the cages at 9:15.

Seeing the Sights on Another Off Day

By: Dick Cooke
The rain is here as predicted, so the decision to forego today's practice is wise. A few players will hit in the cage at Beijing Normal University where the USA has a training facility. Hessman and one or two other hitters plan to go.

Despite the rain, the Cookes head to the Great Wall in the morning with the tour guide who took us around the Forbidden City. This will be my only chance to go with them.

An hour and a half trip, and it's rainy and foggy when we arrive, but clears up a bit as we walk the wall. It's amazing. We spend a good two hours and are sufficiently exhausted when we head back to town. Great job by our guide, and great job by Susan and the girls covering a lot of ground.

On the way back, we get a call from a team doc letting us know there are tickets available to tonight's gold medal women's softball game versus Japan.

After a quick McDonald's dinner, the Cookes, Seiler, Blundell and our security guys head to the softball game and sit right in the middle of the USA parents, who cheer from first pitch to last. A number of our players and staff are at the game as well. An unfortunate result, as the USA loses 3-1 in a great game.

Susan and the girls have now been to seven Olympic events, including two gold medal finals, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Silk Factory and the Great Wall. A great effort for five days, with two more baseball games to go, and who knows what else.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Team USA Earns No. 3 Seed in Medal Round with 4-2 Win over Japan

By:Dick Cooke
Both we and Japan have clinched spots in the medal round going into tonight's game, so we'll be playing for the No. 3 and 4 seeds. Tonight's winner plays Cuba; the loser gets Korea, who is undefeated.

3 p.m.  - Scout meeting to review Japan. They have great pitching, great defense, speed in every spot in the order, but have not swung the bats very well in this tourney. They were the favorites coming in.

No one knows who will pitch, as both clubs will most likely throw a number of guys to prepare for the medal round. The dilemma we face is trying to win the game, but also not overextend pitchers so they are all available Friday.

We will start Trevor Cahill, and we decide to limit him to three innings or a 45 pitch maximum. Japan's best arm is a right-handed pitcher named Darvish, but the scouts doubt he will pitch tonight and will go in the medal round opener.

Laporta is still not 100 percent, nor is Nix, but both will take BP today. Once again we have 10 available positional players. Everyone is asking who we would rather play - Cuba or Korea, and it truly doesn't matter. We played both close in this tourney, so we'll take them as they come.

3:45 p.m. - Van to Wukesong. Later departure today, as we are the visitors so there will be less down time before the game.

5:20 - BP. We think they may throw a lefty, so I throw to the first group. We only have two groups of five hitting, since we're down two positional players.

After BP we spend time with Bob Costas, who has joined the NBC president, who is throwing out the first pitch. Costas is a great baseball fan and knows a lot about our team as minor leaguers in addition as to how we've done thus far.

7 p.m. - Surprise. Japan starts their ace Darvish, but he only goes two innings as a tune up. 94 mph fastball, 86 mph slider, change-up, split finger, strike thrower.

Their next two pitchers shut us down holding us to just two hits through 10, both of which are by Dexter Fowler. Cahill goes three scoreless for us and is followed by Cummings for two, Duensing for one, and Neal and Stevens for two.

We enter the 11th scoreless with five hits total between the teams. Here comes the dreaded IBAF tie breaker.

We start the 11th with, as expected, Donald and Fowler at first and second, and Barden at the plate - the same set-up we used against Cuba.

 Everyone in the ballpark waits for the bunt by Barden. Davey lets him swing, and he drives a fastball up the middle to score Donald and move Fowler to third. Guts of a burglar.

By the time the inning ends, we have scored four and effectively taken away Japan's ability to bunt in the bottom half. Casey Weathers comes on for the 11th and strikes out the first hitter.

First and second, one out. Fly ball to center for the second out, as the runner advances to third. Base hit, and it's 4-1, runners on the corner.

Single to left, 4-2, runners at first and second, winning run at the plate. Passed ball, then an intentional walk to load the bases, tying run at second, winning run at  first. Weathers throws an 0-1 86 mph slider and gets a pop-up to end it.

Good result, but still no one cares for the new format. It has come into play in at least five games in this tourney.

We're 5-2, we're tired, we're glad we won and now have Cuba at 6 p.m. Friday. Steven Strasburg on the mound.

Off day tomorrow and, with rain expected, Davey cancels our workout. It will be a long wait until Friday.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

With Victory over Chinese -Taipei, Team USA Clinches Medal Round Appearance

By: Dick Cooke
There is still a great deal of conversation regarding last night's game with China. Questions about Schierholtz's play at the plate, which replays show to be a good baseball play, and concern about Laporta. He has suffered a mild concussion from the pitch to the head and will be held out of today's game. China's pitcher was suspended for four games, and the team was fined a significant amount. China's catcher, who collided with Laporta earlier in the game, had ACL surgery today.

With Nix and Laporta both out, we will only have 10 positional players available tonight. No pinch-hitting, no pinch runners, no defensive moves.

2 p.m. - Scout meeting regarding Chinese-Taipei. A veteran club with speed at the top and bottom of the order and power in the 3-6 spots in the lineup. We will see a crafty four-pitch right-hander who will pound the strike zone.

3:15 p.m. - Van leaves for Wukesong.

4:35 p.m. - BP

After our BP and while Chinese-Taipei hits, Davey, Reggie and I talk about the different approach mechanically the Asian teams take to hitting. They both played in Japan near the end of their careers, and have been through the Asian approach of thousands and thousands of repetitions in everything they do.

Davey calls it a "quality control approach" and, while they both think it's too rigid at times, they feel there is some benefit. Davey says because they they have changed their diets and train different physically (more strength training), they are producing bigger/stronger hitters who have a disciplined swing with added power.

This is why more and more Asian players are showing up in the big leagues. They are difficult to pitch to, as they all appear to bail out, but they somehow do a great job fighting off pitches. Even the poor hitters do this. They do a wonderful job of using their hands and not opening their hips too soon.

Davey says they have begun to allow more individuality in their hitters, which he thinks is good. The basis of their approach mechanically, though, is very sound.

7 p.m. - First pitch. It's simple. We win; we're in the medal round. We lose, and we have to beat Japan tomorrow night.

Brandon Knight, who struggled in our opener, strikes out five in the first two innings and Hsu, the Chinese-Taipei starter is equally good with his four pitch mix. 83-85 mph fastballs, 75 mph change-ups, sliders, curve balls...

He strikes out the side in the first, and has our guys baffled into the fifth. Change-up after change-up, and then he beats our guys inside with fastballs that are 84, but look 94. No offense through four.

A leadoff double against Knight in the fifth, and a sac bunt puts a runner at third with one out. Davey plays the infield in, which is unusual for him this early in the game. He clearly feels it will be a low scoring affair. A groundball gets past Matt Brown at first, and we trail 1-0.

Dexter Fowler is in center tonight and hitting ninth. He has struggled at the plate and in the leadoff spot in this tournament, but is in there tonight since Laporta is sidelined. He leads off our half of the fifth with a triple to right center, his second hit of the game.

Brian Barden makes a great adjustment from his two earlier at-bats and drives a change-up to right center to tie it at one. We can't get Barden home, and we're tied going into the sixth.

John Gall leads off our half of the sixth with a home run to left to make it 2-1. Lou Marson walks, Jason Donald bunts him to second, and Fowler comes up big again with a flare double down the left field line to put us up 3-1.

But Chinese-Taipei isn't finished, as shortstop Lin leads off the seventh with a long home run to make it 3-2 .

After a hard hit groundball for an out, Knight gives way to Mike Koplove. Knight was very good tonight using his four pitches well. In his first start against Korea, he threw first pitch fastballs to the first 17 hitters of the game, which allowed them to settle in and prevented him from getting a good feel for his off-speed stuff, which is typically very good. His slider is his out pitch, his curveball is a good "get me over" pitch, and he can run his fastball up to 92 when needed. A good outing tonight for the veteran. 6.2 innings, five hits, one earned run.

Koplove is a cross-fire, submarine/sidearmer with a decent amount of big-league time. He retires the first two hitters he faces, then throws a 1-2-3 eighth.

In the bottom of the eighth, we get a big insurance run on a one-out single by Jason Donald on a very tough slider low and away. He scores Gall, who had led off with a double.

Kevin Jepson comes on to pitch the ninth, as he has established himself as our closer. It has taken some time to figure out exactly who would fill the closer's role, as we have a number of pitchers who do or can do that task. Stevens, Neal, Weathers, Jepson, Koplove...

The back end of the bullpen wasn't great early in the tourney, but Jepson has been good every time out and is his most impressive tonight. He throws 12 pitches, 10 for strikes, no fastball under 94, gets a strikeout and two ground balls, and we wrap it up 4-2. The medal round is now a reality.

Ed Lynch, the former GM of the Cubs and one of the guys who helped put this club together, tells Jepson after the game "The next stop for you, young man, is the big leagues." We hope to have one or two more chances to use him here.

Everyone has one more game but Korea, who beat Cuba today, is undefeated and the No. 1 seed, Cuba is No. 2, and we play Japan to determine No. 3 and 4. If we win, we play Cuba on Friday, if we lose we play Korea.

We will shift the pitching rotation a bit and bump Trevor Cahill forward to pitch against Japan, and we will use Steven Strasburg and Brett Anderson in that order in the medal round.

Susan and the girls were at our game tonight and right in the middle of a full house of Chinese-Taipei fans chanting back and forth across the stadium the entire game. Team handball, synchronized swimming and volleyball for them tomorrow, and they hope for a trip to the Great Wall on the 21st. They are tired...

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ejections and Hospitalizations, as Tempers Flare in Team USA's 9-1 win over China

By: Dick Cooke
9 a.m. - The Cooke family heads to the Forbidden City, which is at the northern part of Tiananmen Square. As we enter, a Chinese woman asks us if we would like a tour guide. We contemplate the offer ($35 US) and decide to take her up on it. She is a travel agent who does this on certain days. She becomes our personal guide for two hours and does a great job. It's an amazing place, and her English is good enough that we're able to understand most of the history she shares about the Forbidden City, Tiananmen, Chinese dynasties, etc.

We head back to the hotel as we have our scout meeting at 2, and Susan and the girls are heading to their first Olympic competition - weight lifting - which begins at 3:30.

2 - Scout meeting about China. Carl Moesche of the Major League Scouting Bureau presents the information on China. We receive all of this info. prior to the meeting either by email or hard copy, so the meeting moves quickly.

We've played them twice here, and we know they should struggle offensively, but they have two or three decent pitchers who can keep them in the game. They have played well in this tournament and are now a dangerous team to play in what is a critical game for us.

After Moesche finishes, Davey meets with the coaches to talk about the lineup. He and I had talked at length in the morning, and there maybe a couple of adjustments made as he searches for what he thinks is the right combination.

3:15 p.m. - Van to the stadium. As is the case everey day, we exit the van, the van is searched, and we walk through the security check point. They check everything thoroughly each day and, as time has moved on, they have become more timely in getting us through so we can get to the locker room.

4:15 - Stretch.

4:35 - BP. This is the first normal pre-game routine we've had since the opener, and our first night game since then. Our players show a ton of energy in BP;  all of the infielders get a ton of groundballs and make more throws across the diamond than normal, and it just feels right to be in a normal pre-game rhythm.

7 p.m.  - USA 9, China 1.

Apparently no game we play will lack in drama. Jake Arrieta starts for us and gives us six solid innings in his first appearance since we were in Cary. His command is spotty at times, but he allows only two hits and throws 94 pitches. Lach was hoping for five innings, so this helps our bullpen.

It's a 1-0 game until the fifth. Their starter has done a nice job pounding our hitters inside with 83-85 mph fastballs, and he doesn't make any mistakes over the plate. He tires in the fifth, and John Gall hits a big two-out bloop double off of the China reliever to make it 2-0.

Laporta walks to make it first and second, and Taylor Teagarden laces a ball into the right field corner. Gall scores, and Eck waves Laporta home. The catcher has the ball as Laporta arrives; he lowers his shoulder; there's a collision; the catcher holds on to the ball - safe.

We're not sure how, but the umpire determines LaPorta was never tagged. Replays later show he may have been correct. The catcher leaves with a knee injury, and we take a 4-0 into the sixth.

Now the fireworks pick up. Runners at second and third, 0 outs. Tiffee lofts a shallow flyball to center field; Schierholtz tags at third. Schierholtz takes off; the throw is on line, but inexplicably cut off by the pitcher. The pitcher turns to throw to the plate, and as the catcher waits for the throw, Schierholtz knocks him into the next county. He's safe; the ball goes to the backstop, and the benches begin to clear. Clean play when the catcher doesn't have the ball? Depends who you talk to.

Their manager Jim Levebvre is ejected; order is restored, and we end the inning up 5-0. In the eighth, Laporta is at the plate, and the count is 0-2. They go up and in, and he gets hit in the head. They've tried to pitch inside all night, but given what happened two innings ago, tempers flare. Laporta is down; the docs tend to him. The China pitching coach - former big leaguer Steve Ontiveros - is ejected and Davey is furious.

The game finishes without incident; the teams shake hands, and Laporta goes to the hospital.

We're all exhausted when we get back to the hotel, and now it's time to think about Chinese Taipei. We win, and we clinch a spot in the medal round. If we lose we would have to beat Japan. Seiler and company will get little sleep tonight.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Day Off with the Cooke Family

By: Dick Cooke
Day off today. Strasburg does a bullpen in the morning, but other than that, our guys stay away from the field. Tonight Korea and China will finish their suspended game from the other day with the score 0-0 in the 6th.

11 a.m. - Blundell and I head to the Olympic Village and Olympic Common area to take in the sights. Tons and tons of people are here today arriving at and leaving venues. We get to the Water Cube not too long after Michael Phelps has finished his last competition, and there are hundreds of media waiting at the athlete bus for him. We have to do our best LaDainian Tomlinson impression to get through the crowd.

5 p.m. - The Cooke family arrives safely at the hotel. Other than the long flight, it was a painless day of travel. After dinner, we hit Tiananmen Square, and it is spectacluar in its lighting. People are everywhere walking around the square. No vendors or cheap souvenir stands to run the effect. We get a lot of looks and smiles as I carry eight-year-old Erin on my shoulders around the square.

10 p.m. - The family collapses and I go to the Anheuser Busch House with Blundell and security guy LeRoy Hendricks. It's a place for athletes, coaches and staff from all countries to hang out and is open every other night during the Games. It's a nice opportunity for the athletes to get out of the village. It has sort of an MTV feel to it with a red carpet area for the famous to stroll across. We walked in a different way...

I have a brief conversation with Carl Lewis, and apparently, Michael Phelps was in the house but we did not spot him.

China tomorrow night at 7 p.m. They lost the completion of the suspended game 1-0 in 11 innings. They have played very well in the tournament, and we must focus on this game and not get ahead of ourselves.

Cuba and Korea are undefeated, Japan and the USA have two losses, Canada, China, Taipei and the Netherlands have three losses. Everyone has three games remaining in the first round.

Today was the end of the relaxing days for quite a while.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Team USA Evens Record, Downs Canada, 5-4

By: Dick Cooke
Phew. USA 5, Canada 4.

Perfect weather again, and the sun was shining just a bit brighter after a come-from-behind, nail-biter against the Canadians.

We passed on our scout meeting today, due to how early our game was (10:30), and the fact the scouts were out at games until late last night. Info. was passed on to the coaches via email, plus we had just played them four times in North Carolina before heading over here.

8:30 a.m. - Van leaves for the Wukesong Baseball complex.

9 a.m. - BP in the cages again. Canada is starting a right-hander, so I get Hessman and Barden. Some hitters take the day off from BP.

Hessman is still nursing the bruised heel, although it's better, and he has been given the go-ahead to play from Dr. Mattalino. Davey will use him only if needed in a pinch-hit situation.

Barden has already hit off of Roly, but likes swinging against me as well, as I can keep balls on the outside half of the plate to help him drive the ball the other way.

10:30 a.m. - Another big crowd, as lefty Brett Anderson takes the mound for us facing the Canadian line-up of eight left-handed hitters. It should be a great match-up for us, as Anderson is arguably our best starter and a projected front-of-the-rotation big leaguer.

But today he's not sharp, and Canada jumps out 4-0 after four. Anderson struggles throughout, and afterwards Lach says he's convinced Anderson pitched too much to the scouting report and got away from his strengths.

Pitchers often do this when they have too much information about hitters. When he faced Canada in ,Durham we knew nothing about their hitters, he trusted his stuff and dominated. He does get into the sixth, though, and then Davey brings in lefty Brian Duensing with two outs and a runner on.

Duensing is a starter in Triple-A for the Twins and started our gold medal game versus Cuba in the World Cup last November, but now serves as our lefty out of the pen. This may ultimately be his role when he gets to the big leagues.

Brian Barden puts us on the board in the fourth with a solo homer to right field (see BP...); we tie it at four on a double by Barden off of former big leaguer Chris Reitsma, and then we take the lead on a double by Tyler Tiffee in the seventh.

Duensing breezes into the ninth, but gives up a one-out single to the No. 8 hitter. He strikes out the No. 9 guy then faces USA nemesis Stubby Clapp with two outs and the tying run on first.

On a 3-2 slider, Clapp hooks the ball down the right field line, and the ball lands a good 3-4 inches foul. Tie game if it's fair.

Duensing returns to his fast ball, and Clapp hits the 89 mph pitch on the button but right at left fielder LaPorta to end the game.

A great job by our guys at the plate from the middle innings on, and a stellar job by Duensing. Three and a third innings of scoreless relief.

We're 2-2 now with a day off tomorrow and then China, Chinese Taipei and Japan to complete the first round. We don't think we can stumble again if we want to get to the medal round.

Jayson Nix had surgery after yesterday's game to close the huge gash over his left eye. The surgery went well, and he actually spent the night in the village in the room of one of our docs. He's out for the tourney, although he thinks he could play in a few days if we're still in it. The medical staff is not quite as optimistic. Without Nix we have 11 positional players with Hessman still not 100 percent. We're a bit limited in moves we can make.

The Cooke family arrives tomorrow, if all of their travel plans go according to plan. I went to the CoSport office this afternoon to pick up tickets that they had purchased to other Olympic events.

Using the perk of being on a USA staff, I had a driver take me to the CoSport office - which is on the opposite side of the city - in a USOC van which allowed us to travel in the "Olympic lane" and avoid the stop and go traffic which is the norm here. Had I taken a cab we would have been in that traffic and, if it were like most of the cab rides we've had here, gotten lost.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Team USA Loses Another Strange one, 5-4 to Cuba, Behind International Tie-Breaker

By: Dick Cooke
I'll start this entry by saying today was the best weather we've had yet. Yesterday's rain cleared the air, and we discovered that there are mountains just west of the city. A spectacular day - blue skies, 82 degrees, low humidity.

Now, for this next part, the baseball purists/traditionalists who may be reading this perhaps may want to stop here and skip the rest of today's entry, as I will now explain the new International Baseball Federation (IBAF) tie-breaker format, which has been implemented for this Olympics. It came into play in two games today, ours being one of them. Here goes.

In the interest of having baseball (and softball) games end in a timely fashion, a tie-breaker format has been implemented in extra innings. If the score is tied after 10 innings, then each team begins the 11th with runners on first and second and no one out. Each manager chooses who will be the first hitter, then the two hitters preceding him in the line-up go to first and second. You start every additional inning the same way. Whenever one team outscores the other in an inning, the game is over. When we were together at the All-Star game in July, we heard this was being considered, but none of us thought that there was any way it would be approved.

Back to the day.

9 a.m.  - We meet with the scouts to talk about Cuba, who we know well. This is the eighth game versus Cuba over the years for me, and a good number of these players have been on this team since my first USA team in 1999.

We beat them in November in the World Cup final; we beat them in Havana in the Olympic Qualifier final in 2006, and every game has been memorable in some way. We know what to expect. Aggressive offensively, great pitching, players who run, power, great defense, a veteran catcher - a major-league caliber team. They play a very slow pace and try to intimidate umpires and lesser opponents.

10 a.m.  - Van leaves for the ballpark. Today is our first game in the main stadium.

10:30 a.m. - BP in the cages. Davey has decided to hit in the cages for each of these morning games to allow the players to leave from the village a little later. I throw to Barden, Hessman, who is nursing a bruised heel, and Fowler who wants to get some right-handed swings.

11:30 a.m.  - First pitch. It's a beautiful stadium, which holds about 10,000. The bleachers down each foul line are full, and the outfield bleachers are fairly packed as well. Probably 5,000 or 6,000 here for the game, including a good contingent of Cuban and USA fans.

Trevor Cahill starts for us and struggles in the first. A leadoff walk followed by a double and, by the end of the inning, it's 2-0 Cuba.

Cahill knocks down a hard come-backer with the bases loaded to get a force at the plate and that proves to be a big play. If he doesn't get a glove on it, it is up the middle for two more runs. There were two marginal pitches to the first hitter, which were called low for balls, and Cahill appeared to be bothered by the calls and become tentative as he is a sinker-baller and needs the low strike.

He battled his fastball command all day; his velocity was not where it usually is, his off-speed stuff was spotty, but he leaves after five having allowed only those two first inning runs. Four walks, three strikeouts, six hits, 94 pitches. He survives, and keeps us in the game.

In the fourth, we make it 2-1 on doubles by Tiffee and Schierholtz, and tie it on a bloop double down the left field line by John Gall. Jeremy Cummings comes on to pitch for us in the sixth, and veteran Cuban right-hander Luis Lazo come on for Cuba. Lazo has been with the team forever and is a talented, confident veteran. Cummings does a nice job but gives up a long home run to Cuban designated hitter Despaigne in the eighth. 3-2 Cuba.

Lazo has been untouchable. He is simply a very big man. Picture David Ortiz on the mound with some athleticism. Lazo could be 35 or 45 years old. He used to run it up to 95-97 with a devastating split finger. Now he's "dropped" down to 89-93 and throws 70 percent sliders. He varies speeds on his fastball and his slider; he changes arm angles, and he pounds the strike zone.

We can't touch him and have a bunch of bad swings but, in the bottom of the eighth, Jayson Nix hits a hanging 1-0 slider into the left-field bleachers to tie it at three. Great at-bat.

Mike Jepson comes on to pitch for us in the ninth. It's still tied as we go to extra innings, and Cuba hits a leadoff triple in the 10th off of Jepson, but he strikes out two and gets a ground out to keep the game tied. Teagarden gets hit to lead off the tenth for us. Donald sacrifices him to second base, but Fowler flies out, and Nix pops out to end the threat. Top of the 11th.

Now it's time to try-out the new tie-breaking format. Feel free to leave the room...

Cuba starts with their lead-off hitter at the plate, and their eight and nine-hole hitters at second and first base, respectively. Jeff Stevens is on to pitch for us.

As expected, Cuban center fielder Giorbis Duvergel sacrifices them to second and third. Michel Enriquez lines the first pitch to him, just past the glove of first baseman Tyler Tiffee, and Cuba leads 5-3. Alexander Mayeta grounds into a double play, and we head to the bottom of the 11th.

We have to score two to extend the game. We start with Jayson Nix at the plate, and Jason Donald at second and Dexter Fowler at first, our two best runners.

Nix squares to bunt; the pitch runs in on him, hits his barrel, and goes straight into his face, catching him just above the left eye. Lazo is on from the mound gesturing, and, while Nix eventually leaves under his own power, it looks bad. He'll go to the hospital for overnight observation.

Brian Barden steps in for Nix and successfully bunts the runners to second and third. Tyler Tiffee just misses a hanging slider and hits a long fly ball to center field, which scores Donald. Fowler advances to third. 5-4 Cuba, two outs.

Matt Brown swings at a first pitch slider and pops it straight up to catcher Pestano. Game over. Lazo goes six; hope you like the new format. It's a confused clubhouse at best. We're not sure how to react to losing that way, but we are aware we are now 1-2 with our hands full and down one positional player.

Through 10 innings it was a very, very good baseball game. Another re-group moment is upon us as we have Canada tomorrow at 10:30. They lost 7-6 to Cuba last night. Lefty Brett Anderson on the mound for us.

This evening it's back to Tiananmen Square with Roly, Blundell and security guys Joe Chan and LeRoy Hendricks.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Rain Halts Play, but Strasburg Blanks the Netherlands, 7-0

By: Dick Cooke
After Wednesday's heart breaker against Korea, all the focus and conversation at this morning's staff meeting was on forgetting about that game and concentrating on the task at hand, which was the Netherlands.

A 7-0 win indicates we did a nice job of that but, when your starting pitcher has a perfect game through 4 1/3 innings and a no-hitter through 6 2/3, it's much easier.

Steven Strasburg, a rising junior at San Diego State and, as I mentioned earlier, the only college player ever to make the professional nation team since it's inception, came up big. Seven innings, one hit, one walk, 11 strikeouts, 94 pitches.

There has been a great deal of hype about him and, with our loss last night, the pressure increased ten fold on his outing today. He settled in quickly, striking out the side in the first, and it was a very comfortable game most of the way.

Interestingly, though, as dominant as Strasburg was, he threw a first pitch strike to only eight of the 23 hitters he faced. But he has great mound presence, likes to pitch inside, has command of a good slider and is a strike thrower. Combine all of that with a fastball which ranges from 92-96+, and he makes any hitter uncomfortable. He will likely be the first player taken in next year's draft.

A long home run by Matt Brown got us on the board in the second, and then we tacked on four more in the fourth led by a three-run homer by Matt LaPorta.

Our lead increased to 6-0, when the rains came after the 7th. We were delayed one hour, then went back out to try and finish. We added a run in the 7th; Casey Weathers pitched a scoreless 8th, and then the rains came yet again in the bottom of the ninth.

Blaine Neal was on to finish it up and, after two hits and a walk, he was suddenly in a bases loaded, no one out jam, when they finally called us off of the field for what proved to be the final time.

We never should have started the bottom of the ninth, as the mound was unsafe, and Neal was adjusting his delivery to prevent slipping, which can be disastorous for the health of a pitcher's arm. After a 90 minute wait, the game was ruled complete, and we are now 1-1.

The format for this Olympic baseball tournament is a bit different than in years past and similar to the qualifier in Cuba. Rather than pool play, which is the standard in most team sports, baseball plays a simple round robin format.

Eight teams in the event, you play everyone once (seven games) then No. 1 plays No. 4, No. 2 plays No. 3, the two winners play for the gold, and the two losers play for bronze. It's impossible to tell at this point what your record may need to be to advance to the medal round.

The eight teams in the event are Cuba, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Canada, Netherlands, China and the USA. Japan, who has sent 24 of their major league players, and Cuba are the favorites.

Korea is obviously talented, having shut down their professional season during the Olympics to send their best. There are no easy games. China and Korea were 0-0 today in the 5th when their game got suspended, and Cuba edged Canada 7-6 tonight.

We bounced back well today, and now have to gear up for Cuba tomorrow, which is always a huge game. The international stage is what the Cubans live for. They have been together a long time and are playing very well right now. They opened up by beating Japan 4-2, in addition to tonight's win over Canada.

We'll send Trevor Cahill to the mound against them. You must pitch in side against them, throw your breaking ball for strikes and stop their running game.

Scout meeting tomorrow at 9:30 a..m.; first pitch against Cuba at 11:30.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Korea Wins Thriller in Opener

By: Dick Cooke
Korea 8, USA 7

Not the ideal way to open the tournament. It was a great game if you were a fan, absolutely gut wrenching if you were in the dugout on either side. Korea was as advertised. Quality pitching, speed at the top of the order and power guys in the middle.

We got up 1-0 in the first, but the Korean third baseman hit a monster home run in the second to put them ahead. They get another on a wild pitch in the third and then, after we tie it at 3 in the 5th, they get three in the bottom half to go up 6-3.

Mike Koplove does a nice job in relief of starter Brandon Knight to minimize the damage. Nate Schierholtz hits a line-drive home run in the 6th to make it 6-4, and that's how it stands until the ninth.

Brian Duensing and Mike Jepson do a nice job out of the pen, and Korea's Taehyon Chong, a submarine right-hander is spectacular, as he allows just Schierholtz' home run while striking out the last five batters he faces. Over 2 2/3 innings, he throws four fastballs, and all the rest are sliders - to both right and left-handers. Our right-handed hitters struggle, as he throws one slider after another and pounds the strike zone.

The ninth inning is why it's a great game, and why it's great that there is no clock.

We enter the inning down 6-4. Third baseman Mike Hessman hits the longest home run I've ever seen off of an 84 mph right-hander named Kijoo Han, who is the Korean closer. 6-5 Korea.

Taylor Teagarden follows with a single to right off of a 93 mph fastball. Brian Barden doubles to right center on a ball I thought would be caught, and suddenly we have second and third with no one out.

Another pitching change for Korea with Suk Min Yoon entering the game. 91-93 mph fastball with a big-league 85 mph slider. John Gall, hitting in our leadoff spot strikes out for the third time swinging through a high 90 mph fastball. Jayson Nix gets out front on a slider, pops it up to second base, and we are down to our last out.

With a base open, they pitch around Terry Tiffee, who would hit from the left-side as a switch hitter. It's all on the shoulders of Matt Brown who looks real bad on two sliders to go down 0-2. He battles and battles, then drives a two-strike slider into left field to give us a 7-6 lead. A phenomenal at-bat.

Bottom of the ninth, and Jeff Stevens enters the game to close for us. He was with us in Taiwan, and Davey has great confidence in him. Lead-off double down the left-field line on an 0-2 fastball gets past a diving Mike Hessman. Their next hitter, a lefty who is pinch hitting, fights off pitch after pitch and finally grounds out to second base, moving the lead runner to third with one out.

The next hitter hits a soft ground ball to second base. Jayson Nix tries to get the runner at home, but he beats the throw to make it 7-7 with a runner on first and one out.

I briefly look down at my chart, then look back up, only to see the base runner streaking toward third as Stevens has made a pick-off attempt which sails over Brown's head. Runner at third, one out.

The next hitter hits a fly ball to fairly shallow center field. Dexter Fowler, in for defensive purposes, makes the catch and throws home but it's too late. Game over; bus leaves in 20 minutes.

A very angry dugout and clubhouse, but we can't cry for long as we play a good Netherlands team tomorrow at 10:30 a.m.

This was a game that each team would say they should have won, and a game the fans appreciate. It will be a good test to see how our team responds after this difficult loss. We battled great tonight, had some quality at-bats and got some good pitching from parts of our pen. Nothing from Davey after the game. He simply wants us ready to go by 9:45. We'll start Strasburg tomorrow, the college pitcher who is now on the biggest stage of his life.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Anticipation is Building

By: Dick Cooke
The mood has changed as the opening game stands one day away. Everyone's a little more reserved, a little more zeroed in on Korea. Not many folks wander from the hotel for any length of time.

11:30 a.m. - Our security guys - Joe Chan and Leroy Hawkins - accompany Blundell and myself out to the Olympic Village to pick up Lach to bring him back for our meeting with the scouts. We make a stop in at the Olympic Super Store to check out the merchandise. The store is in the midst of a good number of the Olympic venues including the Bird's Nest (the main stadium) and the Water Cube where swimming is held. Every Olympic venue is impressive. The Chinese have done a great job with that aspect.

We pick up Lach and head back to the hotel where we have a one and a half hour meeting with our scouts about Korea.

Mike Larson, who works for the Major League Scouting Bureau, takes the lead as he has just come from five days in Korea watching Korea, Cuba and the Netherlands play. We go over every hitter, every pitcher, who can run, bunt, defensive strengths, etc.

The Bureau has sent four scouts to serve as advance scouts for this tournament, which is something they have done to some level since 1999. They do a great job compiling tons of information but presenting it in a concise way.

It's the task of the coaches to determine how much information should be shared with the players so as to avoid "paralysis by analysis." This is the first of daily meetings on each of our opponents.

Larson is impressed by Korea. They have shut down their major league season to send their best 24 players over. They are a mix of professional veterans and young, talented prospects. A good number of their roster have had time in Major League Baseball in the States.

We'll most likely see a left-hander who throws 90-93 with a very good slider. He can get the ball up in the strike zone at times and lose some command, so our hitters have to be patient and wait for mistakes. They are solid offensively set up in a traditional manner. Two table setters hit one and two, and they have legit power guys in the 3-6 spots. As most Asian teams do, they fight off two strike pitches and try and work deep counts. It's an experienced line-up. We'll start Brandon Knight, and he and our bullpen will need to be on their 'A' game.

4 p.m.  - Van leaves for the ballpark. We have a bit of a wait while Korea finishes their practice. All the teams are working out on the practice field today, which is adjacent to the two game stadiums. All three fields are outstanding - big league caliber baseball facilities.

5:20 p.m. - Stretch and throw.

5:40 p.m.  - BP. Anticipating a left-hander starting tomorrow, I throw the first two groups, which are made up of the projected starters. They are, in no particular order, Hessman, Brown, Gall, Schierholtz, Tiffee, LaPorta, Nix, Teagarden and Barden. Each group hits for 15 minutes, the hitters then run a few easy sprints, and we're done.

Lach takes a couple of minutes to talk with the pitchers. Eck and Reggie talk to the hitters about approach and to go over signs, and Davey steps in with the hitters to tell them to relax and try not to do too much. Take the walk if you get it, as there are guys behind you who can hit as well. He's very aware of not creating an increased sense of urgency. He wants them to be able to play to their strengths while staying relaxed.

Lach tells the pitchers we have a chance if we play to our potential, but this tournament will be very tough. We all know what we need to do in each element of the game. The adrenaline will flow and the tempo picks up tomorrow.

7:45 p.m. - Dinner with Seiler, Blundell and Roly at a TGI Friday's in a nearby hotel. Blundell is in heaven and feels as though this Friday's is an oasis. Seiler, who runs USA Baseball, is starting to get that edge that he will live with for the next two weeks and the one he gets at each and every tournament. All of us have it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Ladies and Gentleman, the President of the United States

By: Dick Cooke
Rain through the night has finally allowed us to see a legitimate skyline in Beijing. The pollution has been washed away to some degree, and you don't realize the extent of the pollution until you see the skyline as we do today. I can actually see well into the distance from my 24th floor window and finally have a sense as to how far reaching the city limits are.

10 a.m.  - We get word via Bob Watson that everything has been pushed up one hour. Now we will leave at 11:30 and the game will start at 2. Our security guys tell us this is standard practice where the President is concerned. By design it keeps folks guessing.

12 p.m.  - We arrive at the ball park, and there is a heightened sense of energy. Soon after we get into our clubhouse, the coaches and staff have a briefing with President Bush's "planners" and security detail. The want to know what our pregame schedule is so they can tie his appearance into it efficiently.

We are scheduled to take BP until 1:30, he will arrive at 1:35 then the game will start at 2. They, in turn, tell us they would like something to be going on on the field when he gets here, as he doesn't want to have a situation where it looks like everyone is simply waiting for him to arrive. As a result, we change our BP time so we finish at 1:40. His advisers tell us they are never late for things like this, and he will be there precisely when they say.

1 p.m. - BP. Today I throw to Gall, Tiffee, Hessman and Schierholtz. Knowing we will get a left-hander from Korea on Wednesday, Eckstein and Reggie want these four to see me today. I will throw two groups - those who will start Wednesday - tomorrow in practice and then again for pregame BP on Wednesday.

As group two starts to wind down, I am leaning on the batting cage talking with Davey. Suddenly there is a good deal of traffic walking on to the field through the gate by our dugout. Then the President comes bursting through the gate asking, "Where is Coach Johnson?" and marches right over to the cage and visits with Davey and I.

It's a brief visit as the media swarm is significant. I do get a Davidson College plug in, and he says "Awesome place." Right after that it's time for my group to hit, so I jump out to the mound. The President walks over to visit with the Chinese team.

The pace has picked up everywhere over the past few minutes. Two hitters into my BP round, we are told it's time for the photos with the President so we leave the field, put on our game jerseys and congregate behind the cage and take a number of pictures - a very large number of pictures.

The team shots evolve into individual shots with each person's digital, and finally we do a picture with our team and the Chinese. Then we go back to the field, where we finish up our BP round and, in the meantime, the President has made his way to our dugout where he sits for quite a while and visits with players, coaches, staff, wives, etc.

He and I talk briefly about Tony Snow. He's a baseball guy and really enjoys talking with the players and re-hashing the days when he watched Davey, Reggie and Bob Watson play in the big leagues. He's very gracious with all the requested photo ops and signings of baseballs, hats, etc. We present him with a USA jersey, he throws out first pitches to our catcher and the Chinese catcher, then he heads to the stands. He stays for about two innings, then it's off to the airport and back to the US.

As I talk to one of the President's Secret Service detail, I tell him it's been a pretty typical day of pre-game activity for me. Hit some fungos, start throwing BP, stop throwing to take pictures and talk with the President, then go back and finish up the round.

Despite the change of routine, we start the game precisely at 2 p.m. and go on to beat China 7-3. We score 3 in the 9th to make it more comfortable, but it's clear the coaches and players aren't happy with the way we played. Numerous runners left on base, six innings where our pitchers threw 20 or more pitches and 169 pitches as a staff for the game.

The Chinese used seven pitchers and some showed decent arm strength. They will be a team in this tournament who will pitch OK, play decent defense, but will be weak offensively. Lach is not particularly pleased with the pitching today. Andserson starts and goes five while Jepson, Neal, Stevens and Weathers each throw one. China scores two off of Neal in the 7th and one on Weathers in the ninth.

This was the final exhibition game, and now we'll have a short practice tomorrow in prep for the opener Wednesday. It's time to get going. Tonight Roly, Blundell and I are going to find an American steak restaurant somewhere.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Rained Out

By: Dick Cooke
Rain has turned our planned exhibition game versus China into BP in the cages for a handful who want to hit and three pitchers doing side workouts. Back the hotel by 11:30.

Rain is forecast for tomorrow as well as we anticipate a visit from President Bush. We're scheduled to finish pre-game BP by 2:30, and he is suppossed to be there at 2:35.

Davey and I have a long conversation in the hotel lobby about what he's thinking line-up and pitching-wise as the opener approaches. He's on edge - in a good way - and ready to go.

Staff dinner tonight at the USA house courtesy of MLB. The USA House is located close to the heart of Beijing, about 20 minutes from the hotel and 20-25 minutes from the village.

The USA House is run by the USOC, and they have rented this building - normally a restaurant and nightclub - for the Olympics to give athletes, coaches and staff a place to hang out if they are in the downtown area.

We have nice, relaxed, sit-down dinner with tons of great food options. Steve Cobb, who works for MLB and handles many logisitical issues here, takes a moment on behalf of MLB to thank everyone for their Olympic participation.

Back to the hotel by 9. The USA-China basketball game is on at 10 and, while we're planning to get together as a group and watch it, I doubt I'll make it that long.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Shopping and Scrimmaging

By: Dick Cooke
A fairly slow day. At 1 p.m., we had a USOC van take a number of us to the Silk Market to experience shopping like you've never seen. Six floors of everything you can imagine - clothes, jewelry, sunglasses, etc. - with each vendor side-by-side in a small booth. It is non-stop bartering. No prices listed. You like something, they tell you how much, you say no, they ask how much and you go from there.

It was fairly comical to listen to and watch and participate in. They physically come and try and pull you into their booths. Non-stop chatter, and the folks who work there speak English better than anyone we've seen. One of our players purchased five suits - which they will tailor for him, and he spent $100 US for each one.

Practice tonight was a six-inning, intra-squad game. Mike Hessman hit a monster home run off of Stephen Strasburg, and the players good naturedly rode Stras pretty hard afterwards. Stras is going through a bit of the "I'm only a college player" type of ribbing from the others on and off the field. I think he's anxious to get on the mound when it counts and show what he can do.

We play China again tomorrow morning and Monday. We are beyond ready to play for real.

I spent a good deal of time visiting with the scouts last night talking about our team, as well as Korea, who is our first opponent. One of the scouts - Mike Larson - came here from Korea, where he watched them play a five game series vs. Cuba. We'll almost certainly see a young, talented left-hander in the opener.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Let the Games Begin

By: Dick Cooke
8 a.m. - Our USOC van takes the coaches and staff to the main stadium for a short workout. There are two game fields and a practice field. All three are right next to one another, and all three are great facilities. Outstanding playing surface, nice cages. The basketball venue sits just past the center field fence of the main stadium.

9 a.m. - Stretch and throw followed by BP. Brandon Knight throws three innings in a simulated game to get his work in. Back to the hotel by 10:30.

11:30 a.m. - Staff meeting at the hotel to discuss transportation logistics, credentialing issues and our practice, game and meeting schedule. We'll have our first meeting with the scouts on Aug. 12 to talk about Korea, who we play the night of Aug. 13, and the Netherlands who we play on the morning of Aug. 14. The players are itching to go, as is everyone else.

6:30 p.m. - Opening ceremonies tonight and, since Roly and I are not credentialed to march, we join Paul Seiler and 10 others for dinner at Tim's Texas Barbeque. Nothing but real live Beijing cuisine for the baseball bunch.

A call was made to Tim's at 4 to reserve a table for our group. The cab ride takes a good 40 minutes, as we have to go around our elbow to deal with big crowds in the street and closed roads.

But the long ride will certainly be worth it as Tim's comes highly recommended by John Blundell of MLB and another MLB employee. Tim's definitely has a nice, southwestern feel to it. Texas A&M football jerseys, a Texas Longhorns football helmet, other state of Texas athletic memorabilia, TexMex food. The place is crowded so perhaps Tim has found his niche in the Beijing market. Oops. Spoke too soon.

An hour and a half after our party of 13 sits down, and a good hour after we have ordered our food, our waiter, who other than this next message did a great job, tells us that they actually don't have enough food to fill our different orders so if everyone would like a burger they could accommodate us, and they would be free of charge.

Seiler and I are amazed, handle the conversation with some head scratching, and, as we consider the proposition, six people are out of there like a shot. Four are headed to the Thai restaurant down the street, and three others zeroed in on the neighboring McDonald's. Seiler and I laugh, contemplate our options and decide to head back to the hotel. No confrontation with the waiter or manager, but simply a "we didn't quite dine" and dash. A bit of a Twilight Zone restaurant experience.

On the ride home we see a Beijing that is simply impossible to describe. It's 9 p.m., and we now see the major part of downtown, and it is incredible. Huge, wide streets, wide sidewalks and buildings lit up to their full extent that are impossible to accurately describe via written word or photos. Seiler calls the buildings "powerful." Modern architecture with an oriental touch.

Our drive takes us through Tiananmen Square again, which is the geometric center of Beijing. The buildings in and around the square, which I walked near yesterday morning, are now brightly lit and they appear to be even more magnificent. The train station is mammoth, and its lighting illuminates city block after city block.

We watch the rest of the ceremonies at the hotel and then shut it down as soon as they end, as we're all beat. We have a practice day tomorrow during which we will play an intra-squad game to keep our pitchers on track.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Exploring the Sights

By: Dick Cooke
Roly DeArmas (bullpen coach with the Phillies), Davey, Reggie Smith and I are staying at the team hotel just 10 minutes from the baseball venue and not far from many of the popular tourist destinations.

Today we decide to head to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City with three of our scouts. It's a 10 minute, $3 (US) cab ride. There are thousands and thousands of people there, but it's such a huge area it doesn't feel at all crowded. It's almost overwhelming how big the area is. Great architecture, enormous buildings and very, very open and clean. We're trying to figure out just who these folks are carrying fire extinguishers. Fire safety workers? No. We're told they are there for crowd control as well as the firetrucks with the water guns on top. Davey was at Tiananmen Square at 5:30 this morning - not by design, but due to his sleep pattern - and saw the changing of the guard.

Just as we're about to enter the Forbidden City I get a call from Paul Seiler (Exec. Director, USA Baseball) and our team orthopaedic doctor, and I have to return to the hotel to resolve some credential issues. We'll come back here again in the next day or so.

4 p.m. - Van leaves the hotel for the baseball venue. We use our first practice opportunity in Beijing to play an exhibition game versus China tonight. We have to squeeze it into a designated two-hour time limit (6-8 p.m.), which was the time allotted for our practice.

We take BP in the cages prior to the game, take a quick round of infield and then it was right into the game. All but one of the scheduled pitchers get in the game. Blaine Neal doesn't make his planned appearance, as the ballpark lights were turned off precisely at 8 p.m. It's a fairly pedestrian game, as we used this to get the reps we need.

We score 10 in the six innings we play. Jason Donald, who was 0-for-14 versus Canada, gets off the schneid with a broken-bat single and, as a result, we "stop" the game and give him the ball. The Chinese team has no idea what we are doing. It's doubtful he'll put that one on his mantel.

Nine a.m. practice on Friday then an intra-squad game Saturday. We hope to play China once more and the Netherlands before the opener on the 13th.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Team USA Touches Down in Beijing

By: Dick Cooke
I was not intending to write about our travel day, but that changed when I looked out of the window of the plane and saw the North Pole. I figure I won't have an opportunity to see that landscape very often.

We left the hotel in Cary at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, drove four and a half hours to Dulles in D.C., then took off for Beijing at 1:30 p.m., an hour later than scheduled. We flew from Dulles, over the North Pole, through Siberia and landed in Beijing at 2:20 p.m. their time on Wednesday. We are 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.

The flight was packed. The Canadian baseball team was with us, as were a few members of the USA female shooting team, in addition to a large number of Chinese school children.

Two books, a movie and some sleep, and we were in China. Thirteen hours in the air - a very manageable flight. A number of our players and a couple of coaches dropped $750 to upgrade to business class.

Baggage claim took quite a while, but the USOC (United States Olympic Committee) walked us through everything, and all bags were accounted for. The Beijing airport is huge, clean and impressive in its architecture.

On the ride to baggage claim, I spent a few minutes talking with Larry Gatlin of the Gatlin Brothers, who is here to watch the Olympics and is a huge baseball fan. Roly DeArmas and I had our picture taken with Jelena Jankovic from Belgrade, who will become the number one women's tennis player in the world as of August 11. She was on our flight, heading to compete in Beijing.

Tomorrow we play China in an exhibition game at 6 p.m. Our administrators have a full plate prior to that, as there are some credentialing and general logistics issues they need to sort out. In the short time we've been here, the people have attempted to be incredibly helpful, but the language will clearly be an issue.

Monday, August 4, 2008

USA vs. Canada: Third-Straight Win, Final Exhibition

By: Dick Cooke
A special Davidson College treat for all of the USA Baseball contingent as Porter Halyburton, Davidson '63 and Vietnam POW, addresses the team at lunch. Mike Gaski, the president of USA Baseball and the baseball coach at UNCG, met Porter this spring and asked him to visit with us.

He arrived Sunday in time for our game and plans to see tonight's game as well. Porter talks about teamwork and leadership and communication and how critical it was to the prisoner's survival and its relevance to what we are hoping to accomplish in Beijing.

It's a great talk, and everyone is riveted as he shares some of what he went through for seven years in captivity, and the mechanisms he (and other prisoners) developed to survive.

Our 13-hour flight to Beijing suddenly isn't quite so inconvenient. We present him with a USA baseball jersey, which each player and staff member sign, and he'll be in the dugout with us tonight.

He and I spend a good deal of time afterwards talking about the town of Davidson, as he educates me on who lived where when he was growing up and other parts of his Davidson and Davidson College experience. MLB productions is here to film his presentation, and they are equally impressed.

3 p.m.  - Bus to the Durham Bulls stadium.

4:35 p.m. - Stretch.

4:45 p.m. - BP.

7 p.m.  - USA 17, Canada 5.

High-scoring games are certainly nice when you're on the right side of the score, but not on a night when it is, by definition, an exhibition game, and we have to pack the bus at 4 a.m. for our bus ride to Dulles airport.

We lead 4-0 in the bottom of the third when Canada scores three off of Jake Arrieta. He pitched well overall, but may have gotten away from his fastball too much and put himself in too many hitters counts. While only in class A he has a high ceiling and is not far from the big leagues.

A nine run 5th by us puts it out of reach and, from that point on, we are looking at the clock. The 10-run rule is in effect in international play so the game officially ends after seven innings, but we play the 8th as we have two pitchers (Brian Duensing and Casey Weathers) who need to get their work in.

We hit four more home runs, led by Hessman with two. We got our first look at right-handed pitcher Stephen Strasburg, a rising junior at San Diego State and the only college player on the team. In fact, he's the first college player to be a part of the USA Professional National team since it's inception in '99. After some first inning jitters, he settles in nicely and throws a dominant second and third inning. Davey and Lach and everyone else are impressed, as this is the first time they've seen him competitively. He carries himself well and looks like he believes he should be here. It will be interesting to see how we use him in China.

Porter Halyburton is front and center on the top step of the dugout for the entire game. As soon as it ends, I inform him that our 17-run output requires that he accompany us to China. He laughs and then four more coaches stop by and tell him the same thing. You don't mess with baseball superstition. I get a sense he considers it for a moment...

You may have noticed that I haven't made observations about player's specific skills or about injuries. For example, while it would be very interesting, I am not sharing pitch velocities. MLB has directed us to be very careful in journal-type settings for a number of reasons, one of which being the fact there is certain information we don't want made public (i.e. - pitcher 'x' throws 96 mph with an 84 mph slider) as it may aid scouting reports by other teams. Four of the other countries we will play had scouts here for this series against Canada so clearly everyone - ourselves included - is looking for any type of edge. Hopefully we're not being paranoid but merely careful.

It's 1:25 a.m. as I wrap this up. We have a long bus ride in three hours so the next entry will come from Beijing, and I hope it's in a timely fashion.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

USA vs. Canada: Game Three, No Contest

By: Dick Cooke
With a 5 p.m. game tonight following last night's 7 p.m. start and late arrival back to the hotel, Davey decides we will take BP in the cages at the Bulls park today as opposed to normal BP on the field. This gives our guys a chance to relax a bit longer, knowing we still have a long road ahead.

12 p.m. - Team signing in a conference room. Tons of stuff.

1:30 p.m.  - Positional players and coaches head to the stadium.

2:30 p.m. - Bus leaves the hotel with pitchers.

2:45 p.m.  - BP in the cage. A spartan set-up near the home clubhouse. Roly DeArmas and I throw our BP today. I've felt safer. Today I get Nick Schierholtz, Terry Tiffee, John Gall and Brian Barden. I throw to them for about 20 minutes then we head to the clubhouse for more memorabilia signing and to relax until game time.

7 p.m. - USA 9, Canada 1. Home runs are good things, and we hit four, including a grand slam by Schierholtz (Giants, AAA) in the 8th to put the game out of reach. Home runs to dead center field in the 2nd by LaPorta and Hessman set a nice tone. In addition Tiffee hits one off of the right field foul pole. Schierholz's granny was an absolute bomb off of an 84 mph slider. Well over 420 feet.

Strikeouts are good as well when it's our pitchers recording them. Sixteen tonight for our staff including 10 in five innings by starter Brandon Knight (Mets, AAA). Canada tallies an unearned run in the 6th but manages only five hits on the night. More lineup and position shuffling by Davey. More signing after the game, but this time it is for items that the players, coaches and staff will ultimately receive. One more game Monday night, and then the flow changes as we head to China.

Another nice crowd for today's 5 p.m. start following two sell-outs. Today's crowd includes my wife Susan, our three daughters and my mom, who just turned 89. Mom passes on an invitation to run the bases after the game with the rest of the kids in attendance. Not surprisingly my mom won't be going to China, so this was a nice treat for her to watch these guys play. She's seen every imaginable level of baseball for 44 years and contiues to really enjoy it.

The staff will convene tomorrow to map out Monday's lineup and project the pitching for our time in China. We hope to play three or four exhibition games there in lieu of practice, but those details will be last minute which makes coordinating pitcher's throwing routines a bit more complex for Lach.

I make the somewhat manageble drive home to Davidson to see the family once more and do some last minute things. I will head back to Cary early in the morning for a luncheon.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

USA vs. Canada: Second Exhibition, First Win

By: Dick Cooke
12 p.m. - We have an extensive signing session of bats, balls, posters - you name it, we signed it. Much of this has been set up by USA Baseball to help with fund raising, saying thank you to corporate sponsors, etc. But we sense the players are ready to have the normal rhythm of a game day that they are accustomed to. Others would argue that the rhythm they know will be no where to be seen in China.

2:30 p.m. - Bus leaves for the training complex in Cary. I ride with Rick Eckstein, Davey and Lach (Marcel Lacheman). We take advantage of the four field complex to work on some PFPs (pitchers' fielding practice) on a back field and to introduce and go over our bunt defenses. They are fairly simple and similar to what these guys are used to with their pro clubs. We break a good sweat and, once Davey is satisfied we're in sync, we head over to the main diamond to take BP.

I throw to the same guys again. Matt Brown in particular has a great round of BP and, while that doesn't always translate to the game results, it's clear his stroke has gotten into a groove the past two days. After BP we head over the Durham Bulls park where we play the next three games.

Pat Gillick, currently the GM for the Phillies, is in the dugout before the game. He was the GM for the first USA team I was a part of in 1999, the team that qualified for the 2000 Olympics. He's one of the best baseball minds around having constructed the Blue Jays' world champion teams of '92 and '93. I've spoken with Pat a few times but haven't seen him since our time together in '99. It's great to get a chance to visit. He's here to watch two of his organization's players with us, Donald and Marson, as well as two players on the Canadian team.

7:05 p.m.  - Dexter Fowler (Rockies, AA) opens the game with a triple, we score two in the first, and tonight it seems easy. Four strong innings from Trevor Cahill (A's, AA) allowing one hit with three Ks.

Jeremy Cummings (Rays, AAA), who is with the Durham Bulls this year, goes four and pitches well, and Casey Weathers (Rockies, AA) pitches a perfect ninth. Nine hits including two triples and a home run give us a nice cushion throughout the game. Matt Brown indeed has a good night, going 2-for-3 with four RBI and a triple.

I ride back to the hotel with Davey, Eck, and Lach, and we spend the entire ride projecting lineups. Fowler will be a critical piece as the lead-off guy as Davey desperately wants a reliable "table setter."

He's struggling to get a feel for the 3-5 spots but tonight helped him get more comfortable with some options there. He'll juggle the lineup some more over the next two days.

Canada again Sunday at 5 p.m., then once more Monday night before we leave the country.

Friday, August 1, 2008

USA vs. Canada: First Exhibition

By: Dick Cooke
1 p.m.  - This is our first true team meeting, a meet and greet, which is led by Paul Seiler, the executive director of USA Baseball. These meetings are critical as they help everyone learn more about one another but, even more importantly, it allows Paul to explain just what this means from the perspective of USA Baseball and what he hopes it comes to mean for each player.

Forty-two people in the room (24 players, 6 coaches, 12 support staff), and everyone spends a moment explaining who they are, where they are from and how they wound up with this team. It winds up being a two-hour meeting but no one minds.

Seiler is, as usual, impressive in stating what these players represent as they go to play with USA on their uniforms. The players learn about Davey Johnson's history in the game: two World Series as a player, managed the world champion '86 Mets as well as the Orioles, Reds and Dodgers, hit behind Hank Aaron and Sadahuro Oh, got the last hit off of Sandy Koufax in '66. We learn that pitching coach Marcel Lacheman got his first out in a limited big league career by getting Davey to ground out to second base in 1969. Davey denies this.

The staff as a whole does a great job of explaining just what this - and other USA experiences - means to each of us. I look around the room at the players as we speak, and they are locked in and truly listening to what everyone has to say.

The players, too, are impressive. Matt Laporta, who has been in the news recently as the player who was traded by the Brewers for CC Sabbathia, spends most of his time thanking everyone over and over for the opportunity and saying what a privilege it is for him to play with all of the other guys in the room.

John Gall (Marlins, AAA, Stanford '00) says that each player is at a different point in their careers. He and a few others are on the backside of their professional careers, while LaPorta, Brett Anderson and the younger players have their best days ahead. Regardless, he says, this USA opportunity has the same type of lifetime impact on each of them. As a group they seem humbled to be here. Egos appear to have been checked, which is essential.

The meeting ends later than expected so we rush out of the room, get dressed and head to the bus.

3:30 p.m. - Bus to the USA Training Complex in Cary.

4 p.m. - Stretch and throw

4:30 p.m. - BP. 15 minutes per group. Today I throw again to Nix (Rockies, AAA), Donald (Phillies AA), and Brown (Angels, AAA). Lou Marson (Phillies, AA) joins the group. Brown has a particularly good round today after not feeling good about it yesterday.

7 p.m. - After the teams are introduced, I head to the stands where I will chart pitches and velocities and track pitch counts, all of which I communicate to pitching coach Marcel Lacheman during the game. I will also take notes on Canada's hitters and pitchers, which will be inserted into the scouting report we will ultimately create on them when we play in Beijing. Apparently my access to sitting behind home plate may face some challenges in Beijing. We sense that won't be the only challenge over there.

Mike Frongello (Davidson '12), a sophomore pitcher at Davidson, and his family come to the game, and I am able to visit with them.

Left-hander Brett Anderson, (A's, AA) starts for us and gives us four strong innings - three hits, four Ks, one walk.

Terry Tiffee (Dodgers, AAA) drives in the first run in the 3rd. Matt Laporta (Indians, AA) hits a home run in the 4th to put us up 2-0, and Brian Duensing (Twins, AAA) pitches a good 5th and 6th.

Canada scores three in the 7th against Mike Koplove (Dodgers, AAA), a sidearm righty who, because of his arm slot, doesn't match up well against lefties - and nine of Canada's 13 hitters are left-handed. He'll be a situational right-handed pitcher when the Games start.

Brian Barden's (Cardinals, AAA) home run in the bottom of the 7th ties it up, and that's how it stays until the 10th, when Canada scratches a run across against Jeff Stevens (Indians, AAA) with two outs.

4-3 Canada in 10.

It's a quiet bus back to the hotel, but it's simply one of what we hope will be seven or eight games before we play our first one that counts. Davey will adjust the lineup each night; we'll see each starting pitcher once and each reliver twice over these four games, and then we'll have a better sense as to what may or may not work.

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