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Korea beats Japan's ace to win bronze

By John Manuel

Team USA 4, Cuba 0

Korea 3, Japan 1

SYDNEY—For the first time since the Olympics began staging baseball tournaments in 1984, Japan won't go home with a medal.

For the third time in the 2000 Games, Japan sent 1999 Pacific League rookie of the year Daisuke Matsuzaka to the mound. For the third time, Japan lost with him on the mound, falling 3-1 to Korea in the bronze-medal game Wednesday at Homebush Baseball Stadium.

"We were so close to the medal," Japan manager Kozo Ohtagaki said. "But we lost because we didn't have time to prepare to get the amateurs and professionals together."

Japan went 4-5 in the tournament despite the presence of five of its major leaguers in the lineup and four more on the pitching staff. In contrast, Korea (5-4) shut down its professional league to send an all-star team to the Olympics—after finishing an embarrassing 1-6 at the 1996 Atlanta Games—and it paid off with the first baseball medal for the nation.

The win against Japan, Korea's second of the tournament against its biggest rival in Asia, completes an about-face in the tournament for a team that lost its starting catcher and top pitcher to injury. Injured star first baseman Seung-Yuop Lee, who battled ankle and back problems during the Olympics, had the biggest hit of the tournament for his country.

In a tense pitcher's duel between Matsuzaka and Korean lefthander Dae-Sung Koo, Matsuzaka finally gave in when his defense betrayed him in the eighth inning. The game was scoreless when shortstop Jin-Man Park led off the bottom of the inning with a single. Center fielder Soo-Keun Jung sacrificed him to second, and Park advanced to third when Japan second baseman Jun Heima—who made a crucial error that led to Cuba's first run on Tuesday—booted right fielder Byung-Kyu Lee's ground ball.

With runners at the corners, Matsuzaka retired second baseman Jong-Ho Park on a flyout to shallow center field to bring Seung-Yuop Lee, Korea's home run king, to the plate. Lee responded with a line-drive double to left-center field to drive in the game's first two runs. Third baseman Dong-Joo Kim, known as "The Rhino" in Korea for his stocky build, lined an RBI single to right to make it 3-0.

"I didn't sleep well last night," Seung-Yuop Lee said. "I was a little tired today and didn't have a lot of confidence. I expected a fastball, I waited for it, and that's what I hit."

Japan finally scored with one out in the ninth, as first baseman Nobuhiko Matsunaka doubled and scored on a single by DH Yukio Tanaka. Koo then struck out right fielder Jun Hirose looking and retired pinch-hitter Shinnosuke Abe on a routine grounder to second to end the game.

Koo indicated he could continue his pro career in Japan or the United States, but he was thinking more about winning the bronze against the famed Matsuzaka.

"We thought he was really good, and we were nervous a bit at the beginning of the game," Koo said. "But as the game went on, we started thinking we must win. I don't know what else to say. I'm quite happy now."

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