The United States baseball team contributed a much appreciated bronze medal to its nation's overall top medal count, coming back from a 4-1 deficit for an 8-4 victory over Japan on Saturday before a Wukesong Field capacity crowd that included International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge.
The Americans are scheduled to receive their medals in the ceremony that will follow the gold medal game at 6 p.m. local time (6 a.m. ET) between unbeaten and top-seeded Korea and No. 2 seed Cuba -- the nation that blocked U.S. hopes a night before. Right after the last out of this game, though, there was a dugout celebration that made it clear winning at least some kind of Olympic medal brought a joyful feeling.
"How many people get Olympic medals?" asked Brett Anderson, the Double-A left-hander in the Oakland organization who overcame early turbulence to go seven innings and pick up the victory. "It's a really good feeling, especially knowing this is the last Olympics for baseball, at least for a while."
"Everybody seemed like they were playing loose after the [Cuba] game," said Matt Brown, whose three-run homer in the third wiped out Japan's 4-1 lead. The top Angels prospect will now rejoin his Salt Lake City teammates for the Triple-A Pacific Coast League playoffs. "We don't have any letup on this team. We're happy to medal at all."
It was the third Olympic medal for the U.S. team. It won its only gold in 2000 at Sydney behind a classic three-hit shutout from future Major League star Ben Sheets, and it won bronze in 1996 at Atlanta. It was the second time Japan has finished outside of the medal picture, having done so in 2000.
Brown, Matt LaPorta and Jason Donald all went yard in the finale for the U.S., and it could be said that the Americans saved their best for last at these Games. Seven out of the nine players in the order scored. Anderson gave a strong overall outing, and the fielding behind him was Major League-caliber.
Conversely, the Japan team continued to struggle, especially in the field, where left fielder Takahiko Sato made an egregious error on a fly ball for the second day in a row. He had bungled a fly in the eighth inning from Youngmin Ko that resulted in one Korea run and led to another, and in this game, he was right there but was unable to catch Brian Barden's leadoff shot toward the warning track. Barden wound up on second, Jayson Nix walked, and after a Terry Tiffee strikeout, Brown hit his massive clout to left-center.
There was an emotional scene at Japan's postgame news conference, where manager Senichi Hoshino and Norichika Aoki appeared and faced the music in front of the usual swollen media crush from their homeland. Aoki, who had hit the three-run homer in the top of the third to stake Japan to a 4-1 lead, was close to tears when he responded to a question about what he would say to the Japanese people.
"I really would like to say sorry to them," Aoki said. "This is not how it's supposed to end. We came here for the gold medal. It was a great pity. This doesn't mean anything if there is no medal, but I sensed the fun, and I'd like to say this is a great game."
The news conference moderator was in the process of announcing the end of questions and comments, when suddenly Hoshino interjected one last thing:
"I'd also like to say sorry -- but this is because the team as a whole was not in good shape, and in the future we will show you better baseball."
The Japan team was able only to play two exhibitions before the tournament. The U.S. team played four exhibitions against Canada before departing for the Olympics, and then two exhibitions against China. It was not anyone making excuses, but it did seem like an example of the challenge of building chemistry quickly here.
With the score tied at 4, the Americans broke it open in the bottom of the fifth. With one out, Brown doubled, Nate Schierholtz walked and LaPorta popped out to the catcher. Japan reliever Kenshin Kawakami was in position to get out of the inning, but after Brown stole third to put men on the corners, Taylor Teagarden -- up with the parent Rangers as a backup catcher just before this tournament -- hit a big double to clear the bases and make it a 6-2 U.S. lead.
Then Donald, the Phillies' Double-A shortstop, raked one off the foul pole in left for a two-run homer. It was 8-4 -- and then came the long wait.
"That game didn't end quick enough," Donald said. "The sixth inning on, it seemed like it took forever."
When it ended, the U.S. was the bronze medalist of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad.
"It was a great game," said U.S. manager Davey Johnson. "Our bats woke up and Brett really pitched a great ballgame. He had a little trouble in the second and third inning; I guess his rhythm was a little off. He wasn't locating pitches like he would like to. He gave up a couple of home runs, but then he settled down and really won the game for us. He was very dominant after the home run by [Japan's] right fielder.
"Our big bat, Matt Brown, did a heck of a job, and Jason Donald has played great the whole time. He hit a two-run shot that really put the game out of reach."
The medal is meaningful at least in America, where it is common practice to rank the medals standings by overall total. China and virtually every other nation in the world ranks the standings by gold only, not even totaling the overall count. It is kind of like the metric system -- it's always been done that way in the U.S., and it's important at least there.
Donald was asked about the way the Japanese contingent felt the need to apologize to their countrymen -- and what it might have been like had he come up empty. His response:
"We were talking in [the green room before the interview session] and said, 'If we didn't win a medal, I think I would have just stayed in here.'"
The U.S. team will depart Beijing's airport on Sunday (local time) to head back to Washington, and because the flight arrives late in the evening on Sunday (ET), many of the players will have to stay over Sunday night in hotels. Some will disperse to their normal clubs upon arrival, and some will go Monday morning.
Although only the players receive actual Olympic medals, Johnson adds a distinction to a panoply that includes World Series rings as a player with the Orioles and as a manager with the Mets. What does he do now? Don't expect to see him in the Majors as a manager again.
"I've been there and done that," he said amid laughter. "Got fired four times.
"I'm gonna go home and golf, go to St. Thomas and golf, fish a little bit, watch these guys when they go up [to the Majors]."
It's back to the Major League dream, but with a medal to show for their trip to Beijing.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.