World's best? Japan's proof is in the results

Originally Published: March 21, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- Unbeknownst to most of North America, they've been playing baseball in Japan since the 19th century. Thankfully for North America, they've given us Nomo-mania and Ichiro and Hideki Matsui.

But in the long and glorious history of Japanese baseball, there has never been an evening quite like this one.

Japan traveled a long, unlikely road to the WBC championship.

In a ballpark nearly 5,500 miles from home, men named Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka and the great Sadaharu Oh stood along the third-base line at Petco Park on Monday night, showered in confetti, as Bud Selig and Don Fehr hung gold medals round their necks.

All around them, flags waved, whistles filled the night and flash bulbs popped.

The World Baseball Classic was over. And the last team standing wasn't the United States or Venezuela or the Dominican Republic.

It was, instead, this team from Japan -- another one of those nations that has learned to love baseball more than we Americans do.

Off in the distance, the scoreboard spread the news: Japan 10, Cuba 6, in the WBC title game. And that term, "world champions," finally had a whole new meaning.

We know there are people out there -- lots of them -- who will say that this event proved nothing about who the best team in the world really is.

But "looking at today's results," smiled Japan's center fielder, Kosuke Fukudome, "I'd say it was Japan."

As it turned out, Japan lost more games in this tournament (three) than Korea (one) or the Dominican (two) -- but somehow, neither of those teams even made it to the finals.

The Japanese did, though. Somehow or other.

They got this far even though they actually had a losing record in Round Two (1-2).

They got this far even though Bob Davidson made an umpiring call against them that almost had to be referred to the U.N. Security Council for investigation.

They got this far even though Korea beat them twice.

Ichiro
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonIchiro Suzuki, right, and manager Sadaharu Oh enjoy their championship moment.
And they got this far even though, just a few days earlier, they had all gathered around a TV, expecting to watch the United States eliminate them with a win over Mexico.

As they watched that game last Thursday, just hours after what had felt like a fatal loss to Korea, they "never imagined we would be here tonight," Fukudome said.

But this was a plot line, obviously, that defied many imaginations.

That U.S. loss to Mexico helped toss Japan back into a nearly incomprehensible tiebreaker stew. And as fate had it, it was Japan that survived that bizarre little battle of the decimal points -- to advance to the WBC Final Four.

And once the Japanese were given that second chance -- or was it their third? or fourth? -- nobody played the game any better than they did.

They erupted for a five-run seventh inning Saturday that drove them to an emotional win over their rivals from Korea. And that allowed them to play one more time Monday, to rise to one final moment.

"The game on Saturday night against Korea, of course we fought our hearts out," said Ichiro, "because our backs were against the wall and there was so much excitement on the team. Of course, there was another reason -- that we had lost to Korea twice in this tournament. So that really drove us in that game, as well.

"Today, we had a different reason to fire ourselves up. We really wanted to win this championship today, and I didn't even think about the upcoming regular season. ... I didn't really care if I would get injured in this game. That's how much I really wanted to win this one. That's how we were driven to this championship."

I didn't really care if I would get injured in this game. That's how much I really wanted to win this one. That's how we were driven to this championship.
Ichiro
And the way this game unfolded, they could almost take that drive in cruise control -- because this was a game that seemed over before the Cubans in the seats had a chance to shake their first cowbell.

For that, they can all thank Cuban manager Higinio Velez, a man who clearly thought the two words that summed up this night were: NO MAÑANA.

First, he hooked none-too-pleased starter Ormari Romero before a ball had even left the infield (after two infield singles and a walk to Ichiro).

Second, his best reliever, Vicyohandry Odelin, got gonged after four more batters (HBP, strikeout, walk, single up the middle).

And the next thing the men in the red uniforms knew, this had turned into one of the ugliest innings in anyone's tournament scrapbook:

Four runs, three pitchers, 44 pitches, four visits to the mound, one ball out of the infield, nada balls out of the infield on the fly, a leisurely 10-minute-per-out pace and 30 minutes of disastrous baseball.

Boy, you wouldn't have wanted to be hanging around the presidential palace in Havana as all that was going on. We're pretty sure of that.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Yulieski Gourriel
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesThe WBC showed that the language of baseball is universal.
Japan then entrusted this four-run lead to the most dominating pitcher on the continent -- Matsuzaka. And he was seriously fired up himself.

"We all aimed at winning the championship here," the 25-year-old right-hander said. "And in the last game, with the world championship on the line, I was named as a starter of the game. And I'm really proud of the fact that I was able to start, and I also did a decent job to contribute to the win."

Decent? Was that the word he used? Decent? If he was just decent, Sadaharu Oh was just a slap hitter.

Mixing a 95-mph smokeball with three unhittable breaking balls, Matsuzaka served up a leadoff homer to Eduardo Paret -- then allowed only three of the final 15 hitters he faced to reach base, whiffing five of them.

Before this game, the Japanese were nervous that Cuba would have an advantage just because it had seen Matsuzaka before, only a year and a half ago, in Olympic pool play. Uh, not to worry.

There's a reason the Yankees, Red Sox, Mariners and about 20 other big-league teams are already squirreling away some extra yen in case Matsuzaka is permitted to come to America in the next year or two. And that reason was on display for the world Monday night.

But it turned out Velez wasn't the only man overmanaging in this game. After only four innings and 62 pitches, Oh abruptly pulled Matsuzaka.

Uh, what's Japanese for "oops"?

Oh's explanation afterward sounded like an over-the-Pacific version of Jimy Williams' old standby, "manager's decision."

"Of course, he might have been able to pitch some more," Oh said. "But today, that was my decision, to take him out at that moment."

Who knows how long Oh would have been second-guessed if Cuba had been able to come all the way back? Or maybe he's enough of a living legend to be above all that.

But luckily for everyone in his soon-to-be-euphoric nation, Cuba was able to shave Japan's lead to only a run (6-5). Then the Japanese erupted for four runs in the ninth -- off the sixth, seventh and eighth Cuban pitchers of the night. And it was just about time to start the party.

Oh pointed his very own ex-Padre, Akinori Otsuka, out to the mound to finish it. And Trevor Hoffman's theme song, "Hell's Bells," filled the stadium as Otsuka trotted out of the bullpen.

Otsuka said later he'd called Hoffman on Monday morning, to ask if he could borrow his soundtrack for one special night.

I really play for this moment. And it was a historic moment in Japan, and a historic moment for me. And particularly because this was the very first tournament, it's very powerful.
Japan outfielder Kosuke Fukudome

"I was pretty excited [to be out there for the final inning]," Otsuka said. "But my experience in America helped me remain calm on the mound."

Just to make sure, though, Oh stomped to that mound himself with two outs in the ninth. He looked Otsuka in the eye and said: "Let's get him out."

For a pitcher from Japan, in a game like this, that's pretty much the equivalent of an instruction from God.

"Manager Oh is the one who invited me to be on the team," Otsuka said. "So it means a lot to me personally to win for him tonight."

Otsuka followed orders, all right -- striking out Cuban phenom Yulieski Gourriel for the final out. And the story of Japanese baseball had been altered forever.

Ichiro -- more pumped than any American had ever seen him -- would call this "probably the biggest moment of my baseball career."

Fukudome -- who hit the game-breaking, two-run pinch homer Saturday that helped topple Korea -- was even more poetic.

"I really play for this moment," he said. "And it was a historic moment in Japan, and a historic moment for me. And particularly because this was the very first tournament, it's very powerful."

But then this whole tournament was a powerful statement -- about the magical global pull of baseball, the passions it can evoke and a healthy future that will be unfolding in about 87 different languages.

On this night, however, the official language of baseball was 100 percent Japanese.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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