Korea's perfect Olympics ends in baseball gold

BEIJING (Reuters) - South Korea edged defending champions Cuba 3-2 on Saturday to claim the last gold medal to be awarded in baseball before the sport exits the Olympic program.

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It was a bittersweet moment when the unbeaten Koreans stormed the mound to celebrate their first baseball gold knowing they will never have the opportunity to defend their crown.

For the Cubans, who had reigned supreme over the Olympic diamond winning by three of the four golds since the sport was introduced at the 1992 Barcelona Games, it was a crushing defeat.

The pain was magnified by the sport’s Olympic exit, baseball being the most popular sport and a source of national pride on the communist Caribbean island.

“It’s a pity that this event won’t be in the competition of the next Olympic Games,” said Cuban manager Antonio Pacheco. “But I think baseball is still a traditional, national game for Cuba and even without the Olympic Games we will still work hard and we will now focus on the World Classic.”

Lee Seung-yuop, who belted a two-run homer against Japan in Friday’s semi-finals that helped Korea reach the final, found the bleachers again in his first visit to the plate when he tagged Cuban starter Norberto Gonzalez for another two-run shot.

Michel Enriquez delivered a run back for the Cubans with a solo homer in the bottom of the inning.

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Trailing by a run, Cuba staged a heart-stopping rally in the bottom of the ninth, loading the bases with one out.

But they watched their gold medal dreams disappear when Yuliesky Gourriel hit into a double play to end the game and trigger a stampede from the Korean dugout.

A third place finish at the inaugural 2006 World Baseball Classic signaled Korea’s credentials as an international baseball power were on the rise.

But Korea’s 9-0 march to the top of the Olympic podium was unexpected, even by manager Kim Kyung-moon.

“Before we came to the Olympic Games our goal was to go into the semi-final or win the bronze medal at best so today it is a very good thing for us to get the gold,” said Kim. “Today’s result is beyond my expectation.”

Earlier, the United States won an 8-4 slugfest over Japan to capture the bronze.

Editing by Steve Ginsburg