Baseball

Olympic Baseball Showdown: USA vs. South Korea

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The baseball tournament at the 32nd Olympic Games in Tokyo has been an intriguing return for the sport at the quadrennial spectacle. The story of Team USA has been interesting in particular.

The American team lost just one of its first four games of this Olympics. Yet, the team was on the brink of elimination in its latest matchup. Now that there are just three ballclubs left in contention, the United States will have to go through the same exercise on Thursday. Team USA is set to face South Korea for the second time in Tokyo, this time in a semifinal repechage. At stake is a place in the final against host nation Japan on Saturday.

The two teams already faced each other in the group stage, with the North American side coming out on top. However, USA Baseball has an unpleasant track record against South Korea, including losing in the title game to the 2015 Premier12 champions. Meanwhile, the productive US lineup is bound to go up against Korea’s pitching staff, which has experienced rotation struggles. However, SK’s bullpen has been, in stark contrast, one of the best in Tokyo.

Moreover, the game will be a head-to-head showcase between two of the best hitters at the event, Tyler Austin and Hyun Soo Kim.

The showdown between rivals South Korea and the USA is scheduled for 6 am Eastern Time/3 am Pacific Time on Thursday (August 5th). The game at Yokohama Baseball Stadium is also to be aired live on the USA Network. USAN’s broadcast will begin at its regular starting time or after the completion of the Women’s Soccer Bronze Medal Game between the USA and Australia.

Here is your in-depth preview of the repechage matchup.

Road to the Semis

Qualification

Team USA

The United States of America blew its initial chance of qualifying for the Olympic Games back in 2019. At the Premier12 tournament, Team USA reached the Super Round after going 2-1 in Group A, which was held in Mexico. However, the US then lost two of its next four games to Australia and South Korea, failing to advance to the final. Instead, the Americans participated in a contest for the bronze medal at the Tokyo Dome. The highest-ranked teams from Asia and North America were going to join Japan as three of the six ballclubs in the 2020 Olympics. Therefore, the winner of that game would secure its ticket to the Games.

However, the Mexicans defeated Team USA in ten innings to grab the coveted spot. This development would potentially leave the game’s motherland out of the Olympic event until further notice.

Team USA finally earned an Olympic berth via the Americas qualifiers, held in early June 2021 in Port Saint Lucie and West Palm Beach, Florida. Games during the event were split between Clover Park, the spring training venue of the New York Mets, and FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, jointly used by the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals for the same period of the league year. There, the US reached the Super Round, where victories over Venezuela and Canada were enough for a spot at the Games.

Had the USA not finished first in that Super Round, the Mike Scioscia-led ballclub would have had to go through a final qualifier against the Netherlands and Venezuela/Dominican Republic.

South Korea

The Koreans punched their ticket to Tokyo by reaching the final at the 2019 Premier12. South Korea ended up in first place in Group B, which also consisted of Australia, Canada, and Cuba. South Korea hosted the games within that pool at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, home to the Kiwoom Heroes of the KBO.

Following their pool play heroics, Korea added wins over USA and Mexico, as well as losses to Japan and Taiwan en route to a second-place finish. This set the stage for a championship matchup against Japan, a 5-3 loss for the Koreans before 44,000 fans at the Dome.

Olympic Baseball Tournament

Team USA

The United States of America finished first in Group B, defeating both Israel and South Korea. In their opening game, Team USA recorded an 8-1 win over the Israelis after a solid start by new Twins acquisition Joe Ryan. Then, the team won its first encounter with its usual nightmare in WBSC play, beating Korea 4-2 thanks to a two-run home run by Triston Casas.

Team USA suffered its first loss in Round 2 after the privilege of a bye in the previous stage. The US blew a 6-3 lead versus Japan to lose 7-6 in extras.

The United States was victorious in its first elimination game. Today, the ballclub bested the Dominican Republic, 3-1, after five scoreless innings by Giants minor-leaguer Scott Kazmir. Despite a 3-1 record in Yokohama, a loss against South Korea would mean a bronze medal is the best Team USA can get out of its trip to the Tokyo Olympics.

South Korea

Before its loss to the US, Korea came from behind to defeat Israel on Group B Opening Day in Yokohama. The 6-5 victory happened after one extra inning and three homers by SK’s lineup. That win was the catalyst that helped Korea finish in second.

Korea started the double-elimination bracket with a showdown against Mexico, won 12-5 by the Asian side. After that, South Korea faced Israel for the second time, this time in Yokohama and via a lopsided game. Min-woo Kim provided SK’s best outing of the starting rotation in an 11-1 win.

Japan beat Korea, 5-2, to advance to the Saturday final. South Korea’s loss would mean the rematch against the big Asia rival would be delayed at the expense of another rivalry that has seen the Koreans on the right end of the scoreboard.

Key Matchups

Eui Lee Lee (1 GS, 5.40 ERA, 5.0 IP, 9 K) vs Tyler Austin (17 AB, .412 BA, .444 OBP, .941 SLUG)

Although there is no official named starter for South Korea’s fifth game at the Olympics, Eui Lee Lee is most likely lined up for these duties. Lee has had one outing on the mound and is the only pitcher on SK’s roster on full rest. However, his first appearance, against the Dominican Republic in the first round, left him and his team with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, the Kia Tigers lefty completed five innings and struck out nine batters. On the other hand, he allowed four hits and three earned runs in a rocky start. The 19-year-old has been phenomenal during his debut year in the Korean Baseball Organization with a 3.89 ERA in 71.2 IP across fourteen starts.

Lee will be seeking a rebound outing but he could find difficulties on the road. Team USA’s lineup has been one of the most productive, scoring 5.25 runs per game, second-most after Japan.

Meanwhile, the cornerstone of that successful group is former Yankees infielder Tyler Austin. The Yokohama BayStars power-hitter has carried his immense dominance from NPB’s Central League over to the Olympic Games. The 2010 13th-round pick has an on-base percentage north of .400. Furthermore, his .941 slugging figure is higher than that of any other batter in the 2020 Olympic Games baseball tournament.

Other hitters, such as Eddy AlvarezBubba Starling, and Triston Casas, have found stability, living up to the expectations this summer. However, none of them resembles a notable danger insofar as Austin does.

Simeon Woods Richardson vs Hyun Soo Kim (22 AB, .455 BA, .478 OBP, .864 SLUG, 2 HR)

For Team USA, there is only one pitcher who has not appeared on the mound thus far. This means the plan is either to avoid using him or for precisely him to start a game that far into the tourney. The former is unlikely given Woods Richardson’s resume – the No.87 prospect in MLB Pipeline’s database. Woods Richardson was initially drafted by the New York Mets in the second round of the 2018 MLB Draft. He was then sent to the Blue Jays the following year when Marcus Stroman arrived in The Big Apple. Then, at this year’s trade deadline, the Texas native was acquired by the Twins alongside former Vanderbilt shortstop Austin Martin in exchange for starter Jose Berrios.

Despite his high valuation, Simeon Woods Richardson has had a rough season on the Double-A level. In eleven starts for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, Woods Richardson has conceded an ERA of 5.76 across 45.1 innings pitched. Moreover, he has turned in an Earned Run Average higher than 3.50 in each of his two campaigns after “graduating” from the Rookie League level in 2018. Those are concerning figures for a Top 100 prospect heading into his new home, the Twins’ AA affiliate Wichita Wind Surge.

However, before that, he will have to take care of his tough task at the Olympics, facing the third-best batting lineup at the Games. Also, this unit contains three hitters with on-base percentages north of .450 and five players slugging over .500.

Perhaps the most complex hitter in this star-studded batting order is former major-leaguer Hyon Soo Kim. Kim has put on an on-base figure of .478 and a SLUG of .864. These values rank him third in slugging and seventh in on-base percentage. Hyonsoo Kim had two seasons in Major League Baseball for Baltimore and Philadelphia between 2016 and 2017. Most recently, he has played four consecutive campaigns for the LG Twins, recording an OBP north of .350 in each year. Also, Kim has turned in a slugging percentage higher than .450 on three of four occasions.

South Korea’s lineup could be a real head-scratcher for Simeon Woods Richardson if he does not improve upon his concerning MiLB performance. That is if starts on the mound, of course.

History

International Resumes

Team USA

The United States has been present at every Olympic Games since baseball’s debut in 1992, except for the 2004 Athens Games. At the qualifying event in Panama in the fall of 2003, the US passed their group stage undefeated but lost to Mexico in the quarterfinals. Eventually, Cuba beat Canada to warrant a place in Greece.

Team USA’s Olympic stint includes two bronze medals and a gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In Barcelona, the USA kicked their Olympic history off with a fourth-place finish. The ballclub lost 6-1 to Cuba in the semifinals and 8-3 to Japan in the bronze medal game. In Atlanta, the Americans won the first of two bronze medals, a result they replicated in 2008. Moreover, their only championship came in Australia when the US, for the first time with professional players eligible, defeated Cuba 4-0 in the final.

In addition to the Olympics, Team USA has won championships on eight other occasions. Most recently, the team was victorious in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. In the championship game, a Marcus Stroman gem saw the US beat Puerto Rico 8-0 at Dodger Stadium. The Americans won four editions of the defunct Baseball World Cup before the 2013 IBAF-ISF merger. They also have two Intercontinental Cup titles and one Pan-American Games title. In the latter competition, Team USA won five silver medals on the spin.

South Korea

The Koreans’ biggest silverware to date has been the 2015 Premier12 title, as well as the runner-up status at the 2009 World Baseball Classic. At its debut at the 2006 WBC, SK lost in the semis to Japan, finishing third. Three years later, the two East Asia rivals would meet again, this time at the Championship Game in LA, with Japan winning 5-3 in ten innings. The South Koreans trailed 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth but tied it against Japanese closer and future MLB star Yu Darvish.

At the Olympics, Korea won just one of seven contests at Barcelona ’92. However, they followed that up with a bronze in Atlanta. Just like the US, South Korea did not take part in the Athens event after losing to Chinese Taipei in the 2003 Asian Baseball Championship. In 2008, SK defeated Cubs 3-2 in Beijing to grab their only gold. 21-year-old Hyun-jin Ryu pitched eight innings to earn his second win for the 9-0 South Koreans.

Korea also won the 1982 Amateur World Series, as the competition was known before rebranding to Baseball World Cup. The 8-1 South Korea team would feature many high-profile players from the KBO, such as Han Dae-hwa, who played 17 seasons in the league. It should be noted that the South Korean team more regularly features KBO stars as opposed to the situation with MLB and Team USA. The reason is quite simple – KBO clubs generously let their players compete at the Asian Games or the Olympics, being uncontested in the former, as a gold medal would allow them to forgo the mandatory military service. That’s why SK also has five AG titles, in addition to seven Asian Championships.

Last Five Meetings

CompetitionResult
2020 Summer Olympics Group B4-2 USA
2019 Premier12 Super Round5-1 Korea
2015 Premier12 Final8-0 Korea
2015 Premier12 Super Round3-2 USA
2008 Summer Olympics Group Stage8-7 Korea

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Main image credit Embed from Getty Images

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Teodor Tsenov is the Jets and Marlins writer for Overtime Heroics, as well as an NFL and MLB writer for Franchise Sports UK. From Bulgaria.