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2008 Summer Olympic Games Preview - Baseball

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It has been eight years since the United States captured the Gold Medal at the Sydney Olympics. If it does not do so here in Beijing, it may be awhile before it gets a chance again.

Baseball, along with softball, has been voted out of the 2012 Summer Games in London, England, making them the first sports voted out of the Olympics since Polo was eliminated from the 1936 Olympics.

However, the two slots left available by the International Olympic Committee's elimination were not filled by new sports, so both baseball and softball can reemerge as events in the 2016 Olympics, provided no new sports are adopted into the games and both receive enough votes to be included.

Former major league manager Davey Johnson has been tabbed as the man to bring Team USA back to glory following its disappointment in 2004 when the team failed to qualify in Athens, denying them the chance to defend the Gold Medal they won in 2000 in Australia with Tommy Lasorda at the helm.

Early indications have shown that USA Baseball is back on track following a Gold Medal win over powerhouse Cuba at Americas Olympic Qualifier in Panama in 2006, as well as a 2007 World Cup win.

Team USA will be led by power-hitting outfielder Matt LaPorta, who was recently traded to the Cleveland Indians as part of the CC Sabathia deal. LaPorta, the seventh overall pick in the 2007 draft by the Milwaukee Brewers, was also a member of the 2005 collegiate USA Baseball National Team.

"We had heard a lot of good things and we have a number of scouts that join conference calls and talk about players and we look at numbers. The main thing I liked once I saw him is that he is an aggressive hitter," said Johnson.

On the hill, the team will count on San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who recently gained notoriety with a 23-strikeout performance.

"We got our reports (on Strasburg) from (USA Baseball Director of National Teams) Eric Campbell on what he has done and he was on our radar before he pitched for the (U.S. National Team) over in Europe." said Johnson. "He did a great job against the teams he pitched against. He�s a power pitcher. He is in the high 90�s and he throws strikes. That is kind of a rarity for even Triple-A type guys. Here�s a guy who pounds the strike zone awfully good and he was lights out in the tournament. He is one of my starters."

The roster is comprised of 14 players currently at the Triple-A level, seven at Double-A and one each at Single-A and at the collegiate level. Any athlete not on a 25-man roster at the time of selection was eligible to compete.

Johnson's bunch will have the unenviable task of wrestling the Gold away from Cuba, which has won this event three times since it was granted sport medal status at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Cuba, which has lost twice to the United States over the past three years, enters this eight-team tournament as the prohibitive favorites, thanks in part to its three Gold Medals and one Silver in four Olympic Games and 25 World Cup Medals.

Of course, Cuba won the Silver in 2000 when Team USA took home the Gold, backed by current Milwaukee Brewer right-hander Ben Sheets' three-hit shutout.

The player to watch for Cuba is third baseman Yulieski Gourriel, widely regarded as the best player in the country. He can play just about every position in the infield and played second for Cuba at the World Baseball Calssic, hitting .273 in the tournament, with a .342 on base percentage and a .515 slugging percentage.

If there is one sleeper out there it is Canada, despite the fact that it was the last team to qualify for the Games. Canada's roster is littered with former major leaguers and current minor leaguers, including recent No. 1 pick of the Milwaukee Brewers, infielder Brett Lawrie.

Lawrie, selected 16th overall in this past June's Major League Baseball draft, is perhaps the best Canadian-born player since Larry Walker and has been compared to Craig Biggio.

Also participating in the event, which gets underway on August 13, will be China, Chinese-Taipei, Japan, South Korea and the Netherlands. As the host country, China did not have to go through the qualification process like the seven other countires.

The Gold Medal game will take place on August 23.

07/17 14:22:37 ET


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