LOS ANGELES—The rising suns have risen again. But only after putting in some extra work.
Japan reprised its 2006 World Baseball Classic championship with an encore for 2009, defeating arch-nemesis South Korea here 5-3. And in true Hollywood fashion, it was Japan’s biggest star, Ichiro Suzuki, who got to play the hero. Ichiro stroked a solid two-strike, two-out single up the middle in the 10th inning to score two runs and give Japan its second straight WBC championship.
Japan and Korea are almost overly familiar foes. They faced each other twice each in the tourney’s first and second rounds, splitting the four games. In a winner-take-all rubber match, Japan took all, including the Tiffany & Co.-crafted 30-pound sterling silver hulk that is the World Baseball Classic trophy.
The trophy and Ichiro’s hit are both memorable for Japan manager Tatsunori Hara. “It’s an image that will be forever imprinted in my mind,” he said after the game. “I believe I will never forget it.”
Red Sox star Daisuke Matsuzaka was named the WBC Most Valuable Player, which he also won in the inaugural Classic in ’06. He went 3-0, 2.45 ERA for Japan in the tourney.
Both teams played a stellar game dotted with all the hallmarks that got them to the championship in the first place—pitching, defense, and run-at-a-time small ball. But in addition to Ichiro’s extra-inning heroics, it was the strong right arm of Japan starter Hisashi Iwakuma that helped make the difference in the final game.
Going into the championship round, many observers expected fireballing phenom Yu Darvish to take the hill for Japan in the championship game. But Hara used Darvish in the ninth inning against the USA the previous night, and announced Iwakuma the starter in a postgame press conference. Iwakuma entered the game with a 0.73 ERA in three games and two starts totaling 12.1 innings in the current Classic. He had previously taken a heartbreaking loss in a 1-0 game between Japan and Korea on March 9, but was masterful in his last start March 18 versus Cuba, scattering five hits over six scoreless innings.
That mastery continued Monday night, as Iwakuma allowed a mere four hits over 7 2/3 innings, mowing down Korea hitters and allowing only a Shin Soo Choo solo homer and a Dae Ho Lee sacrifice fly as scoring plays. Japan led 3-1 before Korea rallied.
After Japanese reliever Toshiya Sugiuchi finished off Korea’s one-inning eighth, the 22-year-old Darvish came in for the ninth with a 3-2 lead, showing 96 MPH heat and a crippling slider. But Darvish, who took the loss to Korea in his previous start, proved wild, walking two batters. Bum Ho Lee made him pay, slicing a two-out game-tying single to left field, driving in Hyun Soo Kim and sending the game into bonus frames.
Hara bravely trotted Darvish out with a lead again for the 10th, and this time, the youngster got it done. He allowed one walk struck out Keun Woo Jeong to end the game. Of the six outs Darvish recorded, five were by strikeout.
Japan had 15 hits, but scored all its runs on collections of steals, bunts and sacrifice flies. In addition to Ichiro’s 10th-inning game-winner, Hiroyuki Nakajima, Michihiro Ogasawara and Seiichi Uchikawa collected RBIs.
Both teams played outstanding defense. Korea escaped a bases-loaded, one-out situation with a crisp 5-4-3 double play in the third inning, and wriggled out of another hairy situation with a strikeout-throw out double play on a Norichika Aoki stolen base attempt in the fifth.
“As we expected, it became a very close game,” Japan manager Hara said. “I feel like we could have scored more, but it was difficult for us to get runs with the Korea defense.”
Indeed, Japan stranded 14 baserunners in the game.
On the Japan side, left fielder Uchikawa played Gold Glove-caliber defense as well, recording four putouts and nailing Korea’s Young Min Ko trying to stretch a single into a double with an outstanding one-hop scoop and throw in the fifth inning.
The game was as much cultural event as it was sporting contest. After last night’s crowd of 43,360 set a record for a WBC game on U.S. soil, tonight’s championship game shattered the day-old mark, and set a WBC record for any venue with 54,846 through the turnstiles. The crowd was filled with more Korea partisans than Japan fans, as Los Angeles’ massive and densely populated Koreatown is all of about four miles from Dodger Stadium. But rooters for both sides were in full throat and heard from all night—very loudly.
Pre-game, it was Japanese baseball legend and Japan’s 2006 manager, Sadaharu Oh, who delivered the World Baseball Classic trophy to home plate. Both managers doffed their caps and bowed to greet Oh, and Oh even embraced Korea manager In Sik Kim in a warm symbol of international friendship.
“I believe that Korean baseball is at the world level,” Hara said postgame. “The fact that two Asian countries were in the championship is something we can both be proud of.”
At the end, Japan got to keep the trophy, but Korean baseball gained the respect of both its rival Japan, and an entire world with a hard-fought, well-played tournament in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.