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.

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