Korea beats longtime rival Japan
TOKYO -- Japan's recent fascination with dramas originating in South Korea has been called the "Korean boom." Sunday night, Japan experienced a Korean boom of another sort, when the visitors stunned Japan behind solid pitching, a game-saving catch and a game-reversing home run from Korea's greatest-ever slugger.
In a highly charged atmosphere with 40,053 in attendance at the Tokyo Dome, the Korean team leapt onto the field in a celebration of their 3-2 victory that could lead some to wonder if there was anything left to play for in the World Baseball Classic.
Longtime rivals, every victory by the Koreans over Japan is one to be savored and none more so than this. In the days running up to their WBC openers, marquee Japan star Ichiro Suzuki had urged his teammates to hammer their opponents "in such a fashion that they won't think they can beat Japan for 30 years."
After neither of Japan's first two opponents could go nine innings, the only question in Tokyo seemed to be whether or not the hosts would win a nail-biter or something more impressive.
In a pre-tournament press conference Chan Ho Park, perhaps bridling at Suzuki's remarks, said his plan was to focus and concentrate on the very first batter. The San Diego Padres pitcher explained after repeated questioning that he was referring not specifically to Suzuki but to each lead-off hitter.
That may be, but the tension could not have been thicker when Park strode to the mound in the ninth inning and recorded a 1-2-3 inning with Suzuki as his final victim.
The winning pitcher was New York Mets lefty Koo Dae Sung, who played four years in Japan, after an international career in which he earned the nickname "Japan killer."
Koo, who threw two perfect innings of relief said he used his experience here to cross up the hitters.
"I was most nervous about the batters who I knew, because I knew they knew me as well," Koo said. "I tried to pitch the opposite of what they expected and it worked.
"I have a lot of international experience against them and I have never allowed more than three runs. So I always have confidence against them. I don't think their hitters can hit my pitches."
Koo's pitching in the 2000 Sydney Olympics -- when he eliminated Japan from medal contention -- led to a contract in Japan.
Right fielder Jin Young Lee saved the game for Korea in the fourth with an unbelievable catch. With the bases loaded and the runners going on two outs, Lee dove to catch a line drive headed for the corner, tumbled and came up with the ball to defy Japan, which had a 2-0 lead already.
In the eighth, Seung Yeop Lee, who set Korea's single-season home run record with 56 for the Samsung Lions in 2003 used his two years of experience in Japan's Pacific League to torment his hosts.
"From my experience in Japan, I thought a Japanese pitcher would come with a breaking ball," Lee said. "So that worked out for me."
Although it was his third homer in two days, he had struggled in his first three at-bats against a pair of recent teammates, Japan starter Shunsuke Watanabe and reliever Soichi Fujita. Faced with a reliever he had never seen from the Central League, where he will be playing this season and in the home park of his new club, the Yomiuri Giants, Lee went downtown and turned out the lights.
The best part of this matchup is that this was only Round 1. The two teams, whose pitchers combined for five hit batsmen, including Suzuki, who was hit by a fastball, will play again on March 15, with the game likely involving a semifinal berth. If anyone thinks this one was wild, wait till they get to Anaheim.
"On the 15th, I want revenge on them," Japan manager Sadarahu Oh said.
China has long march ahead
The WBC ended for Chinese Taipei with one win, a final-day 14-3 slaughter of rival China. Like each its previous games manager Jim Lefebvre's China squad kept the game tight but unraveled in the middle innings.
"It wasn't a pretty series, but it was a great learning experience," said Lefebvre, who is tasked with bringing the Chinese team on line and up to snuff in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "We've got two years to get ready.
"I'd like to see us play younger players. Get some youth programs in place as a feeder system."
In addition to the WBC and the China Baseball League, Team China will play games against Japanese minor league teams this summer and take part in the Arizona Instructional League.
Throughout the series, China's pitching was far too predictable.
"We have to learn that pitching is not about one pitch, or about one location. It's about combinations of pitches, moving the ball around and changing speeds."
Taiwan manager Lin Hua-wei, who knows Japanese ball from his days as a corporate league player in the 1980s, believes his young players had underperformed in Tokyo.
"We didn't get the result we wanted," he said. "Some of our young players were not used to this kind of event and didn't perform up to their ability.
"They are young, however, and I hope they can do better in international games in the future.
"Our batting should be at a higher level. I think each batter learned how much they need to try harder."
Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.