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BEIJING 2008 : BASEBALL

U.S. is trying to pick up split

An 8-7 loss to South Korea is followed by a rain-delayed game against the Dutch.

August 14, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- Two days into the Beijing baseball tournament and the United States is .winless.

But only temporarily. And only because Mother Nature intervened.

The U.S. stumbled out of the gate, giving up two runs in the bottom of the ninth to lose to South Korea, 8-7, in its opener Wednesday, but the Americans were on the verge of a victory over the Netherlands today when play was stopped by rain in the top of the eighth with the U.S. leading, 6-0.

The rain not only delayed what appeared to be an easy U.S. victory, it also disrupted a brilliant pitching performance from San Diego State's Stephen Strasburg, who held the Dutch to one hit through seven innings, striking out 11.

And Strasburg, who needed only 92 pitches to get that far, had a chance at the Olympic record of 14 strikeouts in a game before the rains came.

If all that seemed easy, though, a bigger test looms Friday, when the U.S. takes on Cuba, the defending Olympic champion.

"Our main objective is, of course, to win the gold medal," said former big leaguer Bob Watson, general manager of Team USA. "We understand the competition will probably be the best in any of the previous Olympics.

"That shows you how the game has grown around the world."

But even though the world has caught up with the Americans, the U.S. will still be on track to reach the medal round if it completes its victory over the Netherlands. The four teams with the best records after the first round advance out of pool play and the U.S. could do that with wins over weak teams from China and Taiwan and a victory over Canada, a team it beat three times in four tries in the run-up to Beijing.

Just 13 hours after a disheartening loss to South Korea -- the U.S. rallied with three runs in the ninth to take the lead, only to give it back with some shaky fielding in the bottom of the inning -- Strasburg gave the Americans a big lift with a near-perfect effort against the Dutch.

In fact, the 20-year-old from San Diego State, the only collegian on the U.S. team, was perfect into the fifth before walking catcher Sidney de Jong with one out. And he didn't give up a hit until the seventh, when cleanup hitter Sharnol Adriana lined a clean single to right with two outs.

Strasburg, who struck out 23 batters in a win over Utah in April, was overpowering again against the Dutch, striking out five of the first six men he faced.

Angels minor leaguer Matt Brown, whose two-run, two-out, two-strike single put the U.S. ahead briefly in the ninth inning against South Korea, keyed the offense again against the Netherlands, belting a long home run in the second. The homer, off Washington Nationals prospect Shairon Martis, also gave Brown three hits and four RBIs in his first six Olympic at-bats.

Two innings later Brown walked ahead of Matt LaPorta's three-run homer and the rout was on, before the rains came.

But if the Netherlands was no match for the U.S., Cuba will be.

The Cubans opened defense of their Olympic title with an impressive victory over pre-tournament favorite Japan and its all-world pitcher Yu Darvish, who lasted only four innings, giving up four runs and seven hits and throwing first-pitch balls to 18 hitters.

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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