By Kirk Kenney
SAN DIEGO—The rivalry between Japan and South Korea begins in the stands, where fans for both teams chant and cheer, blow whistles and bang drums, wave flags and flail arms. Incessantly.
Give Korea the edge, if for no other reason than because that is the country where thundersticks were created.
It was lightning—three quick runs in the first inning—that enabled Korea to secure a spot in the World Baseball Classic semifinals Tuesday night with a 4-1 victory over Japan before 15,332 at Petco Park.
“The three runs in, that was heavy,” Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said through an interpreter, referring to South Korea’s three-run first off Japanese ace Yu Darvish.
Japan must now beat Cuba in Wednesday night’s elimination game if the Japanese are to have an opportunity to defend their WBC title.
Japan eliminated South Korea in the semifinals of the inaugural WBC in 2006. Give South Korea the edge now, if for no other reason than the country is playing at a higher level.
South Korea right fielder Jin Young Lee, who singled home two runs in the first inning, said the Koreans expect to win now when the teams meet. That confidence, no doubt, is the product of two wins over Korea on the way to last year’s gold medal at the Beijing Olympics and two more wins over their rivals this year in the WBC.
“In the first case (in 2006), Japan was one level higher than Korea, and also the players thought that way,” Lee said through an interpreter. “However, once we started the game with Japan, Korean players think we always have to win the game.
“In this case, I think it started from the Olympic Games. We won and we came up to this point here. I think we are at the same level, and I think they are our rival, and we thought we should win this game. That’s our preparedness in our mind.”
Korea starting pitcher Jungkeun Bong, who pitched briefly in the majors in 2003-04 for Atlanta and Cincinnati, limited Japan to one run on three hits over 5 1/3 innings. Bong didn’t dominate, walking three and striking out one, but he did win.
“In the beginning, I had difficulty controlling the ball, but I think I had a very good ball,” Bong said through an interpreter. “Throughout the ninth inning, we stated the best effort, and I think we got the good result like this.”
Japan’s Darvish didn’t look like he would make it past the first inning, but Korea didn’t get a runner past first base against the 22-year-old righthander over the next four innings.
Darvish, whose fastball reached 97 mph, allowed three runs and three hits in the first, escaping further damage with an inning-ending double play. A two-out single by Korea’s Tae Kyun Kim was the only baserunner Darvish allowed before he reached his 85-pitch limit.
The problem was Japan couldn’t get much of anything going offensively. A single run in the fifth inning marked the only time Japan was able to get a runner past second base against Bong and three relievers.
Bong suggested that Korea’s “spiritual strength was stronger.”
Said Hara: “If you want to say that, that’s fine, but as far as we were concerned, the spirit, we are as one, and we unite together.”
Tell that to Cuba.
Kirk Kenney is a sportswriter based in San Diego
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