So just who are the other seven teams that stand in the way of a gold medal for the Americans? Cuba, Japan and Korea are seen as the greatest competition, but everyone involved is building this up as the most balanced Olympic field yet. During Monday's U.S.-China exhibition at Wukesong Stadium, USA Baseball scouts Mike Larson and Kevin Saucier spoke with MLB.com to size up the competition:
This is the fifth Olympiad for baseball, and "La Bayamesa" has become a popular national anthem played at the medal ceremony. Cuba has won three of the first four, falling short of the gold in 2000 at Sydney, where it took silver after Ben Sheets' three-hit shutout for Team USA. Fans should see basically the same team they saw reach the 2006 World Baseball Classic final game, a 10-6 loss to Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Japan.
That means pitching stalwarts like big Pedro Luis Lazo, Adiel Palma and Yadel Marti, who threw 12 2/3 scoreless innings in the World Baseball Classic. It means offensive threats like Yulieski Gourriel (eight runs in the World Baseball Classic) and Yoandy Garlobo (.480, 12 hits, .536 on-base percentage).
"It's a very similar team to what they've shown in the past," Larson said. "They run in cycles where the better players play many years on their national team because they are the best players in that country. So they're very similar, will bring the same style and ability. . . . and they're slowly sprinkling in many young arms."
Gourriel has moved back and forth between third and second base, and is now playing second. "He's still that feared bat that hits third in the lineup," Larson said. "Then they follow him up with the big first baseman, (Alexander) Malleta. There's just not a weak spot in that lineup. It takes perfect baseball to beat them."
Perhaps the biggest change from the last Olympics to this one is the overall perception of Japan as a world baseball power. Not only is the country increasingly supplying impact talent to Major League Baseball, but it won the World Baseball Classic and has amassed depth and fundamental skill. It faces the same situation as the U.S. in that its marquee players like Ichiro are involved in their own top-level regular season, but it has a minor league from which it is able to draw for this event.
"We know very little about their roster, other than the fact they will have some good starting pitching, outstanding team speed, and, as is typical of Japan teams over the years, fast and fundamentally sound baseball," Larson said. "They will make very few mistakes, will put pressure on the defense, and they are always an extremely difficult team to match up against."
Yu Darvish is perhaps the one to watch, not only in this competition but in a Hot Stove League at the end of this decade. Some people think he could command twice the bounty that Matsuzaka ($51.1 million for five years) got from Boston after the 2006 season. The right-hander will turn just 22 Saturday, and he already has five years of contract status in the Japan League.
This could be a coming-out party of sorts for him.
"He is a pitcher who can be very dominating -- 6-5, long and lean, throws hard right over the top. It sounds like he has that frontline-starter type of stuff," Larson said. "If they're advertising a player to show what they are about, he's the name to keep your eyes and ears out for."
Seung Yeop-Lee hit five home runs in the World Baseball Classic, making a name for himself and leading Korea to a stunning tournament showing that ended in a loss to Japan in the semifinal. He has been playing with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, and has been "up and down a little bit but he's been productive," Larson said.
Remember the gloves on the guys in sky blue? They were vacuums everywhere, making extraordinary plays look routine the entire event. "They don't beat themselves," Saucier said. "You just can't let up against them."
Korea is strong enough on both sides of the ball to win on any given day.
"We know most of it is media reports, but we know they have big bats in the lineup, they have good speed and power in the middle of the lineup, several good arms with outstanding stats in the KBL. It'll be interesting, as Game One always presents a lot of issues with not having info beforehand. It comes down to who adjusts better during the game, who eliminates mistakes, who capitalizes."
The U.S. is especially familiar with this team, having just played four consecutive exhibitions against Canada in North Carolina before departing for the Olympics. Canada won the opener, 4-3, thanks to Scott Thorman's two-out double in the top of the 10th off Jeff Stevens -- the first outing by this U.S. team.
Brett Anderson started that game by throwing four scoreless innings, and he said he is expecting to start against Canada on Friday as well. Anderson pitched five scoreless innings (90 pitches) Monday in the exhibition against China. The last three games of that series were all U.S. -- victories by a 33-8 margin. The Canadians were especially outmatched by Brandon Knight, who struck out 10 in five scoreless innings.
A lot of people will be watching for 18-year-old catcher Brett Lawrie, who according to scouting reports has plus, raw power with strong hands and bat speed. The Brewers made him their top overall pick in the last First-Year Player Draft, and he just signed with them before heading to China. His sister, Danielle, is a pitcher on the Canada women's softball team in these Games. "He can hit," Larson said.
Canada is expected to be without 6-foot-7 right-hander Phillippe Aumont, who the Mariners drafted 11th overall in 2007 out of Quebec.
This much you usually know about Canada: "They'll be predominantly left-handed in the lineup," Saucier said. It's a hockey thing.
"They've got a good mix of veterans who have been in one or two Olympics," Larson said. "There are some quality athletes and younger players."
"Honkbal" is increasingly popular among the Dutch, a sport to fill in the summer between the soccer seasons, and now it has the only representative from Europe at the Olympics. The team is managed by Robert Eenhorn, who played pieces of four seasons (including the 1996 World Series year) as an infielder with the Yankees. Being around Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and the like, certain things are picked up that you can instill.
"You know they're well-managed, and they're continuing to improve every year," Larson said. "They have a lot of the same players over the last several years. They're never to be underestimated."
More and more players from the Netherlands are gradually making their way into pro ball in the U.S. It will be hard to miss Loek van Mil, a 7-1, 225-pound right-hander from Oss who was signed by the Twins in 2005 and has pitched well in the low Minors.
Shairon Martis dazzled everyone by throwing a no-hitter in the World Baseball Classic.
"I saw him throw that no-hitter," Larson said. "It just reinforces the point -- any team can dominate you on a given day.
"It just takes that one team to kill you," Saucier said. "It's gonna happen, there's no doubt. You just hope it doesn't happen against the United States."
While China was making it respectable in the 7-3 exhibition loss to the U.S. on the field in front of him, Larson was in the stands talking about how a country that started baseball from scratch this decade has gotten to this point.
"When they first put this team together several years ago, I had the opportunity to see them in Phoenix at the fall Instructional League, and just to see what they're doing today is how far they've come," he said. "It's obvious to me how much time they've put into learning the game, putting it to a higher level and executing.
"Four years ago, you looked out there and it's night and day. They're much more athletic, their actions, you could see they put time into it. They've got pitchers who will compete and will beat people. To automatically make assumptions as to their competitive level would be a mistake. When you take a group with a good work ethic that will put time into it, playing for pride of nation in front of their home people, there's a mix there for surprise."
The China team wore jerseys with no numbers for the two exhibitions against the U.S. During Monday's game, they were throwing to the right bases, making close plays, hitting with some pop -- once Anderson (five shutout innings, eight strikeouts) left, anyway. One of their numberless players tagged Blaine Neal for a shot to the wall in left, the first run-scoring hit against the U.S. in Beijing.
The first player to watch for is 19-year-old center fielder Che-Hsuan Lin, who has a connection to Cooperstown after making headlines last month during All-Star Week at Yankee Stadium. The Red Sox outfield prospect was 2-for-2 with a two-run homer in the World's 3-0 victory over the U.S. in the XM All-Star Futures Games.
His red-and-white bat was sent to the Hall of Fame after that game.
"We liked his defensive ability, arm strength, speed, projectable bat and work ethic," said Craig Shipley, vice president of international scouting for the Red Sox, in describing the team's pursuit of Lin.
There are other key Major League prospects on this roster. The U.S. team was eager to find out more information about what kind of club Chinese Taipei will be bringing to this show. Expect this team to be more reliant on speed than power.
"You do know they'll be bringing a stronger team, because they now have several players in the Minors, so you know they're getting better," Larson said. "The more players you can get to face at higher levels of competition, the better you become."