- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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BEIJING -- An American team got an up-close look at Japanese star pitcher Yu Darvish when the United States played Japan in the final preliminary-round game of the Olympic tournament Wednesday. It was a brief but very effective appearance.
Japan's best pitcher and possibly the subject of a Daisuke Matsuzaka-like posting fee within two years, Darvish held his opponents scoreless for two innings and struck three before leaving with the game tied in the eventual 4-2 U.S. victory (in 11 innings).
"He threw all hard pitches, hitting the low 90s with a good change of speeds and a hard slider," second baseman Brian Barden said. "If he had to go two or three times through the lineup, it might be a different story."
While we'll have to wait and see whether American hitters get another look at Darvish in the Olympics or have to wait until he goes to the majors, the U.S. definitely will get a second game with Cuba as the tournament heads into the medal round, setting up a rematch between baseball's superpowers in a semifinal game Friday. The U.S.-Cuba winner will play the victor of the other semifinal between Japan and undefeated Korea.
Cuba beat the U.S. last weekend in an 11th-inning tiebreaker, and afterward manager Davey Johnson accused the Cubans of intentionally throwing at Jayson Nix, who fouled the ball into his eye on a bunt attempt. The Cubans vigorously denied the accusation, and the pitch did not look intentional.
"There's some past there, definitely bad blood with players and coaches who have played them before," Barden said of Cuba-U.S. baseball relations. "It was a tough game last time and we're hoping for a really good game this time. You can't really get into bad blood, you just have to play the game."
Johnson was calmer and more diplomatic when asked about meeting the Cubans again.
"They've had the most international success of any team around the world," Johnson said. "They've been dominant in the World Cup and the Olympics. It's a hell of an opportunity to play them. We still think we're the best club in North America, though. Or South America." He added that Nix, who originally was feared out for the Olympics, might be able to play this weekend.
While starting rotations are announced well in advance in the majors, they are zealously protected as state secrets here at the Olympics. Neither Johnson nor Japanese manager Senichi Hoshino would reveal their starter for the semifinal game.
That Darvish started Wednesday's game was a bit of a surprise to Johnson. Darvish is Japan's best pitcher, and the game was relatively meaningless because both teams had already qualified for the medal round.
"He's a great pitcher," Johnson said. "He threw the ball good and hit his spots. It was like throwing on the side for him, so he'll probably be ready to pitch Friday or Saturday."
Darvish told Japanese reporters he didn't know whether he would pitch this weekend, but he would do his best if called.
Both teams pitched well Wednesday, and each squad was held scoreless through the first 10 innings. That set up another tiebreaker for the U.S. Under the rule, if a game is tied after 10 innings, each team begins all subsequent innings with runners on first and second and its choice of batter (more tiebreaker details). The U.S. complained about the new rule after losing to Cuba in a tiebreaker and still wasn't crazy about it even after the tiebreaker victory over Japan.
"I hope there are no extra-inning games. I don't like that dumb rule," Barden said. "I wish we could just play it out like the game should be."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.