LOS ANGELES—In the end, USA manager Davey Johnson was a prophet.
Though we’re sure he wishes he wasn’t.
“Our offense has been good. Our pitching has not been where it should be,” he said before Sunday night’ semifinal game of the World Baseball Classic.
Sure enough, one bad inning was all Japan needed to defeat the United States, 9-4, and advance to the 2009 WBC final, where it will take on arch-rival South Korea at Dodger Stadium on Monday night.
“We played against Korea in Japan, and I felt we would play Korea many times again,” said Japan manager Tatsunori Hara.
Hara is a prophet, too. Japan will face Korea for the fifth time in this World Baseball Classic, the maximum number of times two teams can face each other. The two teams have split the previous four games.
The United States entered the game with a robust .303 batting average, but a bloated 6.18 ERA. Johnson trotted Astros star Roy Oswalt out to the bump to try and change the USA’s pitching fortunes. It wasn’t to be. Japan rapped out five hits in the home half of the fourth inning and combined them with a sacrifice fly and a USA error to score five runs in the inning and take both momentum and a commanding 6-2 lead.
Oswalt pitched well though three innings, allowing only one run on one hit and one hit batsman. But when it fell apart, it fell apart quickly. The U.S. entered the fourth inning with a 2-1 lead, courtesy a leadoff homer from Brian Roberts, and a third-inning RBI double from David Wright that plated Jimmy Rollins.
But then Japan took over. DH Atsunori Inaba started the inning with a hard grounder through the right side of the infield for a single, and first baseman Michihiro Ogasawara followed that up with a slashing line drive single to center. Inada scored on another hard-hit grounder to the right by the Cubs’ Kosuke Fukodome, one that ricocheted off of Roberts for an error. Ogasawara advanced to third on the play.
Ogasawara scored on a sacrifice fly to right by Kenji Johjima., and then Akinori Iwamura’s triple into the right field corner scored Fukodome. An RBI flare into right by Munenori Kawasakai scored Iwamura, and Kawasaki himself scored on a double by shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. Japan sent nine batters to the plate in the inning.
Japanese starter Daisuke Matsuzaka lacked control, working many deep counts on USA hitters, but was nonetheless effective. He left the game after 4 2/3 innings and 98 pitches, right up against the WBC limit of 100. He was credited with the win, improving him to 3-0 in this Classic and 6-0 all-time in the event.
Mark DeRosa made things interesting in the USA half of the eighth inning with a 2-RBI double, but 6-4 was as close as the USA could make it. Japan added three insurance runs in its half of the eighth, and phenom pitcher Yu Darvish, surprisingly, closed out the United States in the ninth.
Many expected Darvish, who regularly hit 96 MPH on the radar gun and now has a 1.64 ERA in the WBC after his ninth-inning work tonight, to make the start. Instead, Japan will send Hisashi Iwakuma and his 0.73 ERA in 12 1/3 innings pitched up against Korea. Iwakuma shut out Cuba for six innings in an elimination game in his last outing.
The night’s attendance checked in at 43,630 fans, the second-highest game total in WBC history, and highest ever on U.S. soil. With huge Korean and Japanese populations both in Los Angeles, many expect the final game to go even higher, as Japan will attempt to defend its 2006 WBC title.
What else might fans expect? Manager Hara was tight-lipped. “You can observe tomorrow when we play,” was all he said.