Japan Tops USA For Olympic Baseball Gold
It took bringing the Olympics coming to baseball-crazy Japan to get the sport re-entered into the Olympics after a 13-year hiatus.
Fittingly, baseball’s return was celebrated by Japan winning its long-desired first baseball gold medal.
Masato Morishita and four relievers combined to shut out Team USA and give Japan a tense, 2-0 win in the gold medal game at the Tokyo Olympics.
The win is Japan’s first gold medal in baseball since it became an official Olympic sport in 1992. Japan did win the 1984 tournament, but baseball was included in the Los Angeles Olympic games as a demonstration sport. Japan had won two bronze medals (1992 and 2004) and one silver (1996) since baseball became a medal sport. It also finished fourth in 2000 and 2008.
With the Olympics being played in Japan, the team pulled out all stops to try to secure its first gold medal. As it has done before, Nippon Professional Baseball shut down its season to allow top players to play in the Olympics.
And it worked. Japan went through the six-team Olympics tournament undefeated. It beat fourth-place finisher South Korea. It beat the bronze medalists (Dominican Republic) and it beat the silver medalists (Team USA) twice.
In the gold medal game, Munetaka Murakami’s home run in the third inning was all the scoring either side was able to get for most of the game. Murakami’s blast gave Japan an early 1-0 lead, and Japan's pitching staff and defense held onto it.
The U.S. put runners on first and second in both the fifth and sixth innings, but failed to score in either situation. Nick Allen doubled with one out in the seventh to put the tying run in scoring position, but ground outs by Jack Lopez and Eddy Alvarez squelched the potential rally.
The U.S. once again put the tying run on base in the eighth on a Tyler Austin single. But Triston Casas couldn’t check his swing on a slider off the plate, Todd Frazier popped up and Eric Filia grounded into a fielder’s choice.
Japan got an insurance run in the eighth. Tetsuto Yamada’s single began the inning and a sacrifice bunt advanced him to second. On an 0-2 count, Masataka Yoshida golfed a ball into center field for a single. USA center fielder Jack Lopez, an infielder by trade filling in for the injured Bubba Starling, threw home while Yamada halted at third. But Lopez’s throw was far up the third base line and got past USA catcher Mark Kolozsvary. Yamada sprinted home, barely beating the throw to give Japan a 2-0 lead.
That was enough for Japan’s closer Ryoji Kuribayashi. He blew Jamie Westbrook away for a strikeout. Kolozsvary lined a ball to left field, but right at Masataka Yoshida for the second out.
Allen kept Team USA alive with two-strike single to right field, but Lopez followed with a ground out to second, setting off Japan’s celebration at the mound.
Team USA’s silver medal finish marks only the second time the U.S. has played for the gold. Team USA now has one gold (2000), one silver (2020) and two bronze medals (1996 and 2008).
That means that since, Japan now has one gold and two bronze medals in the Olympics. Team USA has one gold, one silver and one bronze over that time. It continues what has become a healthy international rivalry as the two countries battle for international supremacy.
If Cuba was the dominant team of the 20th century when it came to international baseball, Japan and the United States have battled for that title this century.
Japan has two World Baseball Classic crowns. The U.S. has one. When it comes to lower-level international tournaments, the U.S. has won four of the last five U-18 World Cups. Japan won the most recent Premier12 tournament
The two teams are clearly the class of international baseball, and for now, Samurai Japan has bragging rights. The return of the World Baseball Classic in 2023 will give the two countries another chance to face off.