By Kirk Kenney
SAN DIEGO—Ideally, the drama builds with each game in an international tournament.
If only that was the case Thursday night at Petco Park in the final game of the second round of the World Baseball Classic. Japan and South Korea have a spirited rivalry, but there was little on the line this time.
Can players be inspired to run through a wall for you with nothing but semifinal seeding at stake? Apparently not.
“Today, we didn’t put much meaning to winning or losing,” South Korea manager In Sik Kim said through an interpreter.
Said Japan manager Tatsunori Hara, also by way of translation: “Psychologically, I was—myself as well as the players — it was like a flat condition.”
For the record, defending WBC champion Japan defeated South Korea 6-2. At least the boisterous crowd of 14,832 brought its yeah game.
This weekend’s semifinals matchups at Dodger Stadium are now set. South Korea plays Venezuela on Saturday and Japan plays Team USA on Sunday, where fans can look forward to a likely Daisuke Matsuzaka-Jake Peavy matchup. Hara perked up at the prospect of facing the U.S.
“I am very excited about that, myself, to play against the American baseball team,” he said. “When I stated watching the major league, I was very impressed. We need to catch up to the major leagues, and we need to go beyond that, and that was the education and circumstances of how I played the baseball. That was my basebal. . . .
“I have a great deal of respect for American baseball. And here is a great opportunity right in front of me, and I am so excited about that.”
The semifinals winners meet Monday for the WBC title.
Japan and South Korea have split the four games they’ve played against each other in this year’s WBC. With semifinals berths already locked up, this game lacked the intensity of the other three contests. Both teams played with one eye on the weekend.
That would account for the three errors made by both the Japanese and the Koreans. There were only six errors committed here in the previous five games combined.
That also would explain why the teams went through pitchers like AIG goes through money. Japan starter Tetsuya Utsumi was bailed out by six relievers. Five pitchers followed South Korea starter Wonsam Jang to the mound. Both teams want to be well-armed for the weekend.
The only real intrigue was over injuries. A scary moment came in the bottom of the third inning when South Korea right fielder Yong Kyu Lee was hit in the helmet by a fastball from Utsumi.
Lee hit the dirt immediately and writhed in pain in the batter’s box as trainers rushed to his side. After a few minutes, Lee was able to get up under his own power as he left the game.
Lee suffered a contusion on the top of the neck/base of the head. His availability for this weekend remains to be seen.
Japan also lost one of its starters when first baseman Shuichi Murata pulled his right hamstring running out a single in the fourth inning and was aided off the field.
“As far as Murata is concerned,” said Hara afterward, “his injury is a major injury. He’s not in condition to be able to play. So he will have to be replaced.”
South Korea’s Bum Ho Lee tied the game 2-2 when he led off the bottom of the seventh inning with a home run to the deepest part of center field, Japan broke the tie a few minutes later with four hits—all singles—in the eighth that helped produce three runs.
The Japanese players reacted with little emotion.
It’s a good thing Japan’s fans had their ever-present thundersticks. They drowned out the crickets.
Kirk Kenney is a sportswriter based in San Diego