ANAHEIM--Alex Rodriguez came through in the clutch, delivering a bases-loaded, two-out single in the ninth inning off the glove of pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa that scored Randy Winn to deliver the United States a nail-biter of a 4-3 victory.
But mere minutes earlier, four runs would only have been good enough to tie Japan.
A run for Japan was taken off the board in the eighth inning, when speedy second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka attempted to tag and score from third base on a fly to shallow left field hit by Akinori Iwamura. Nishioka scored easily, but was called out on appeal for leaving third base early. The game was tied 3-3 at the time, and remained as such, paving the way for Rodriguez' ninth-inning heroics.
"I saw the angle of the baserunner and the left fielder, and thought he left early," said U.S. manager Buck Martinez, who raced onto the field to appeal the call. "Everybody on the bench reacted the same way, which validated what I thought was happening. I had a real good look at it."
Doubling Nishioka off on appeal resulted in the third out of the inning, but Japan did not immediately take the field for the bottom of the eighth until after manager Sadaharu Oh concluded a lengthy conversation with the umpires, amid booing from the Anaheim crowd. It was eventually home plate umpire Bob Davidson, a 15-year major league veteran, who made the final call. The umpires released a postgame statement indicating that in their mechanics, the home-plate umpire has that call when the bases are loaded, as they were in this instance.
Oh was politely reserved after the game, but stuck to his guns. "The home-plate umpire overruled the judgment. I just believe that the closest umpire should have the same equal right to judge," he said. "It's a pity that it was overruled."
One way or another, a huge walk-up crowd with a heavy Japanese fan contingent got its money's worth, with a dramatic game settled on the final pitch. The crowd of 32,896 also saw things get started with a bang. Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki greeted U.S. starting pitcher Jake Peavy rudely with a leadoff home run to left off a 2-0 count. Peavy went five full innings in his first-ever appearance at Angel Stadium, yielding Japan's three runs. He was outdueled by Japanese starting pitcher Koji Uehara, who also went five and left with a 3-1 lead. The only run the U.S. managed off Uehara was Chipper Jones' towering second-inning solo home run into right-center.
"I am glad that I ended up giving up only one run," Uehara said. "I was able to pitch with patience. I think it was a good job."
The U.S. tied things up in the sixth when Derrek Lee roped a two-run homer to the left-center batter's eye, scoring himself and Jones, who had walked ahead of him.
Japan threatened in the ninth inning, when first baseman Michihiro Ogasawara led off with a walk. Pinch-hitter Norichika Aoki laid down a beautiful sacrifice bunt to advance him to second, and he later advanced to third on a ground out. But after two more walks by pitcher Brad Lidge loaded the bases, Lidge struck out Hiyoshi Tamura swinging to end the threat.
The U.S. ninth-inning rally started when Vernon Wells reached on an infield single to the left side, and Randy Winn reached safely when second baseman Nishioka, covering first base on Winn's sacrifice bunt attempt, pulled his foot off the bag. The U.S. had men on first and second with no out when relief pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa expertly fielded Michael Young's subsequent bunt and nailed Wells at third.
Derek Jeter was hit in the back by a Fujikawa pitch, loading the bases with one out. After Ken Griffey Jr. struck out on a full count, Rodriguez hit one right back through the box, glancing off Fujikawa's glove and into center field to score the winning run.
"I definitely felt very proud," Rodriguez said. "It was the first opportunity of this sort that I had, and I was very happy to make that hit."
Lidge recorded the win for the U.S. with Fujikawa taking the loss. Next up, the U.S. faces Korea on Monday, while Japan takes on Mexico on Tuesday.