by Jim McLauchlin
March 15, 2006
ANAHEIM–Japan controlled its own destiny. But just like every other team in the World Baseball Classic, it couldn’t control Korea.
Korea continued its surprising dominance of the world, knocking out Japan with a 2-1 victory. With the win, Korea punched its ticket to the WBC finals starting Saturday in San Diego. Team USA will earn the second qualifying spot if it beats Mexico on Thursday.
The matchup had all the trappings of a classic offense against defense struggle. Japan entered the game with a team .337 batting average and 43 runs scored, both WBC bests. Meanwhile, Korea entered with a microscopic 1.40 team ERA and had yielded just seven runs, again both WBC bests.
Pitching, and Korea, prevailed. Korea, which beat Japan 3-2 in the first round in the Tokyo Dome, coasted through Round Two with a 3-0 record, and ran its overall WBC mark to a stunning 6-0.
“We gave everything we had,” Japan manager Sadaharu Oh said in the postgame. “We learned that our opponents’ desire was higher than ours.”
Japan threatened early, when third baseman Akinori Iwamura led off with a single in the second inning. He later advanced to second, and tried to score on a hit by catcher Tomoya Satozaki. But Iwamura was nailed at the plate on a nice throw by Korean right fielder Jin Young Lee, on a play that would later prove oddly fateful. Iwamura was taken out of the game with a slight hamstring pull he felt rounding third base, and was replaced at third by Toshiaki Imae the next inning.
Pitching took over, with Japanese starter Shunsuke Watanbe and Korean ace Chan Ho Park mowing down hitters. The game remained scoreless through seven complete.
But fate came back to revisit Japan in the top of the eighth inning when Korean second baseman Min Jae Kim walked with one out. On a subsequent single to center by Byung Kyu Lee, Kim made a reckless and ill-advised turn around second and dug for third. Center fielder Kosuke Fukudome’s throw was well ahead of Kim’s head-first slide, but Toshiaki Imae–that’s right, the substitute third baseman–bobbled the ball on the tag. Kim was called safe, and Korea was granted new life.
Korea took full advantage of the opportunity, as Jong Beom Lee delivered a two-run double that rolled all the way to the wall. The two runs were all Korean needed.
Japan’s Tsuyoshi Nishioka banged out a solo homer in the ninth that trimmed Korea’s lead to 2-1 and heightened the tension in a hard-fought and close game. But reliever Seung Hwan Oh came in and struck out the final two Japanese batters to record the save and cinch up the win.
Korea’s win wasted the stellar effort of Japanese starting pitcher Shunsuke Watanbe, a knuckle-dragging submariner with an effective changeup. Watanbe went six full innings, the second-longest outing by a pitcher in the WBC. Watanbe gave up only one hit, and yielded two walks.
Watanbe was matched and perhaps exceeded by the Padres’ Park, who has pitched brilliantly in the Classic. Park, who has thrown 10 scoreless innings in four appearances, showed uncharacteristic, masterful control, holding Japan in check for five full innings of four-hit ball with no walks. Park twirled 66 pitches, an amazing 50 of them for strikes.
“Our pitchers worked very hard and gave 110 percent,” Korea manager In Sik Kim said. “They did their very best, and that’s why we got where we are.”
Park was visibly pumped up and emotional, as Southern California in general and Orange County and particular have huge Korean and Japanese populations. In the third inning, fans were still walking up to buy tickets. Attendance came in at 39,679. The raucous Korean portion of the crowd, the majority faction on this night, cheered wildly as Korea took a victory lap around the field after their win, then planted the Korean flag on the mound.
The final game in Pool 1 is Thursday’s U.S. vs. Mexico matchup. Pirates hurler Oliver Perez will toe the rubber for Mexico, while U.S. manager Buck Martinez sends Roger Clemens out to take the ball.
“There’s no better big game pitcher in baseball than Roger Clemens,” Martinez said. “He’s into it. We certainly hope to give him some run support and let him do his thing.”