That was determined by the Americans' 4-2 victory over Japan in 11 innings on Wednesday night at Wukesong Main Field. Capitalizing this time on the new extra-innings rule, the U.S. broke a scoreless tie in the top of the 11th on three consecutive singles, and then closer Casey Weathers escaped a bases-loaded jam after allowing Japan two runs.
The preliminaries thus came to a close, and it resulted in the four teams that were generally expected to advance doing just that. Korea finished 7-0, Cuba 6-1, the U.S. 4-2 and Japan 4-3. Rounding out the competition were Chinese Taipei and Canada, each with 2-5 records, and the Netherlands and China at 1-6.
The Americans' defeats were in the opener against Korea and the third game against Cuba, each of them coming down to the final at-bat. There is that thin a line between being unbeaten and just making it in. To say that any of the four teams can win gold would be an understatement.
Stephen Strasburg, the San Diego State junior who struck out 11 and allowed just one hit in seven scoreless innings against the Netherlands last Thursday, is scheduled to start against the international-baseball machine from Cuba at 6 p.m. local time (6 a.m. ET). Korea and Japan will play the 10:30 a.m. game on Friday, and the losers of the semifinals will meet for the bronze at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday followed by the gold medal game between the winners at 6 that night.
"It was a game where it was really hard to get motivated," said U.S. manager Davey Johnson, who assembled his team for a pep talk an hour before the largely meaningless game between two teams that had clinched semifinal spots a night earlier. "It was like when you clinch a division -- you know you're going to be in the playoffs."
Johnson said perhaps the most important thing about this victory -- besides some national pride -- was the start time his team now gets for the semifinal. "The 6 start feels more like a ball game," he said. "The 10:30 feels more like a Spring Training game."
Actually, this game was like a Spring Training game. Both teams used this final preliminary game as a way to get work in for their pitchers. Japan's staff ace, Yu Darvish, started, threw two scoreless innings and then departed as scheduled. Johnson used starter Trevor Cahill and relievers Jeremy Cummings, Brian Duensing, Blaine Neal, Jeff Stevens and Casey Weathers.
"It was important, because we got a lot of work in for guys we're going to be counting on the rest of the way," said Stevens, who retired the side in order in the ninth and then got away with a single allowed in the 10th.
It was the first time that Japan experienced the new extra-innings rule, which was implemented by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) for this event as a way to help induce a "definitive ending" to a game in this competition. Terry Tiffee, the U.S. first baseman, called the rule "bogus" after watching his team coming out on the short end of its usage last Friday against Cuba.
"It was my first time using the extra-innings rule," Japan manager Senichi Hoshino said. "I thought they would bunt, we brought our defense in, and that was a mistake. We learned a lesson in this game.
"We lost because of the extra-innings rule."
The rule says that if the score is tied entering the 11th, each team must "reset" its lineup by choosing which batter will lead off -- then place the two men before him in the lineup on first and second to start the inning. Johnson opted for Brian Barden to lead off, so he put Jason Donald on second and had Dexter Fowler occupy first.
The Americans teed off on Hitoki Iwase at that point. Barden ripped the first pitch to center to drive in Donald for the game's first run, moving Fowler to third. Nate Schierholtz also nailed the first pitch, a smash to right that made it 2-0 and again left men on the corners. Then came Matt Brown, who on 0-2 blooped a single to center that made it 3-0 and -- again -- left men on the corners.
After a strikeout by Tiffee -- 0-for-4 on the night but otherwise the most valuable player for the Americans in this tournament so far -- John Gall grounded out to first and Schierholtz beat the subsequent throw home to make it 4-0.
Mike Hessman ended the inning with a foul pop to finish the night 0-for-5 -- and extending an Olympic-size slump that might be the biggest concern right now for the Americans. He hit a mammoth homer in the ninth inning of the opener against Korea to get a comeback started, but he hurt a heel running the bases and missed two games. He hasn't sniffed a hit since then, going 0-for-13 and stranding runners along the way. The U.S. probably is going to need his big bat to start making noise again beginning on Friday.
Hoshino took a different approach to the 11th, putting his first two hitters in the lineup on first and second and sending up No. 3 hitter Norichika Aoki to lead off. Weathers got two quick outs, and the shutout was looking nice for the U.S. But he gave up back-to-back singles that cut the U.S. lead to 4-2, then intentionally walked Munenori Kawasaki. That brought up pinch-hitter Shinnosuke Abe with the bases loaded and the chance to win it in dramatic fashion -- but Weathers got him to pop foul to first.
"To finally win one of those 11th-inning, strategy-type deals, it was fun," Johnson said."
Now it will be one off-day with no workout, and rain in the forecast all day.
The Americans outscored their competition in the prelims, 40-22. Cuba scored the most runs with 52, largely because of its 17-1 dismemberment of China earlier in the day. Japan allowed the fewest runs, 14. It was an especially rough stay for the Netherlands, which totaled nine runs and allowed 50.
When it was all over, the four that were supposed to be there for the semifinals were there.
"We came in just trying to compete," Weathers said. "Every game's been close. Even the ones where we were able to score some more runs, they were mostly close. The expectations were high with so many competitive teams, and that's what we found in the preliminary round. We're just glad to be moving on against Cuba."
Jayson Nix (left eye) and Matt LaPorta (mild concussion) each took batting practice and looked good. Both probably will be in the lineup against Cuba. That would be especially noteworthy for Nix, who had homered in the eighth inning to send the Cuba game into extra innings, was struck on the face while bunting against Pedro Luis Lazo in the 11th and was hospitalized and thought to be out for the tournament. He has steadily progressed, and could be in position for a dramatic rematch on Friday.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.