YOKOHAMA, Japan —
The U.S. pounced and didn’t relent Thursday, beating South Korea 7-2 at Yokohama Stadium to advance to the Olympic gold medal game in baseball for the first time since taking gold in 2000.
They’ll play Japan, the only undefeated team in the tournament, for the top spot on the podium Saturday night. The Japanese seek their first Olympic baseball gold medal since the sport first joined the Olympic program at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
South Korea will play for the bronze medal against the Dominican Republic on Saturday afternoon.
The U.S. didn’t face a deficit, taking the lead in the second inning, and surged ahead with a five-run sixth. Joe Ryan gave up a run on four hits across 4 1/3 innings before four relievers held the Koreans to one run over the final 4 2/3 frames. Left fielder Jamie Westbrook, center fielder Jack López and designated hitter Tyler Austin each had two hits. López and Austin finished with two RBI.
López, a 28-year-old infielder for the Boston Red Sox’s triple-A affiliate, was a late addition to the roster after the team qualified. The decision to join wasn’t easy. López was loyal to Puerto Rico. He was born on the island. He went to high school in Florida but most of his family still lived there. He had only represented Puerto Rico in international play. He’s a U.S. citizen — all people born in Puerto Rico are — but he never thought about playing for the United States.
That changed when Red Sox manager Alex Cora, a fellow Puerto Rican, gave him a call. He told López a spot was open on the U.S. roster and he encouraged him to fill it.
Initially, López was hesitant. He’s a proud Puerto Rican. He didn’t want to seem like he was turning back on the island. But his wife urged him to seize the chance. Puerto Rico didn’t qualify for the Olympics so that team wasn’t an option. Maybe he’ll never get this opportunity again.
López was convinced. His sports citizenship was formally changed to the U.S. and he won’t ever be able to play for Puerto Rico again, but being an Olympian, he said, it worth it.
“It is a little weird just because I’ve represented Puerto Rico before, but being here with the Olympics, it’s a dream come true,” López said. “Not only just to be here with the United States but to be able to represent Puerto Rico. I bring Puerto Rico with me. That’s where I was born and I’m going to take it to my grave.”
López shined Thursday. His RBI single in the second inning opened the night’s scoring, giving the U.S. a lead it didn’t relinquish. He added another RBI single as part of the Americans’ five-run sixth inning.
The U.S. tallied the six runs without an extra-base hit, meticulously creating distance from the Koreans with walks and singles. Austin supplied the exclamation point: a two-out, two-run single off Kim Jin-uk to build a five-run margin. The Americans didn’t look back. Next is a chance they haven’t had in 21 years against the tournament favorites on their home turf.