Korea riding wave of momentum

Updated: March 18, 2006, 5:35 AM ET
By Jim Allen | Special to ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- There is no shaking the notion that Team Korea is Team Destiny after sweeping into the World Baseball Classic semifinals with a perfect 6-0 record.

No team has given Korea more trouble than longtime rival Japan, but despite its opponents' passionate desire for revenge, the Koreans came out on top 2-1 in front of a noisy crowd of 36,679 at Angel Stadium. They celebrated accordingly, carrying their country's flag around the park.

It was a special moment for Korea captain Jong Beom Lee.

"In 2002, the Angels won, so on TV I saw them winning at Angel Stadium," said Lee, who untied this Gordian Knot of a pitchers' duel with a two-run double in the eighth inning.

"As a baseball player, I said that would be my dream, to play in that stadium. So tonight my dream came true. When we were sure we clinched a spot in the semifinals, every player was ecstatic. That's why it was kind of a natural gesture to do that and to show our gratitude to Korean-Americans who came to see our game tonight."

The presence of so many of his countrymen made the win over Korea's former colonial masters all the more tasty.

"I was aware there were a lot of Koreans living in the area, but not that many," Lee said. "I was very touched by their support, and it was sweet revenge to beat Japan."

Manager In Sik Kim, however, had other business to attend to.

"Actually, I was not there," Kim said. "I got a phone call from the President of Korea, and perhaps I was talking to the president when my players and coaching staff were making their victory lap."

Japan's Shunsuke Watanabe, who held the Koreans to a run in 4 2/3 innings in Tokyo, where Japan lost 3-2 to Korea, improved on that performance Wednesday with six shutout innings. But once again, the Koreans proved more resilient, more resourceful and perhaps more lucky than the Japanese.

"But I think we have excellent leadership under manager In Sik Kim," Lee said. "We have been staying together since Fukuoka [where Team Korea started training in Japan on Feb. 18]. He always emphasized that we should enjoy the game.

"We have very good team spirit, and we work together very well. I think it was very bad luck that Japan lost."

One reason for the bad luck was Korea's clutch fielding. Right fielder Jin Young Lee provided an encore of his show-stopping performance 10 days earlier at Tokyo Dome, where his diving catch saved three runs with Korea already trailing 2-0.

With Chan Ho Park giving Japan far more opportunities than Watanabe gave the Koreans, every defensive play was crucial, and Jin Young Lee once more delivered the biggest. A nearly perfect throw punched out a runner at the plate to end the second inning and keep the game scoreless.

"Again, it was the same right fielder who made that catch at Tokyo Dome. It changed a situation from one where we could have scored to one in which we did not," Japan manager Sadaharu Oh said. "It has been indicative of the way momentum has flowed in this tournament."

Korean first baseman Seong Yeop Lee entered the game with more steam than anyone else in the tournament.

The slugger, who began the night with five WBC homers and whose two-run shot beat Japan on March 5, was held to a walk in four plate appearances.

"We knew how important it was to stop him and keep him in the park," said Watanabe, who has been a teammate of the Lion King's for the past two years with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan's Pacific League.

"We developed a solid plan with the catcher [Tomoya Satozaki], who is my teammate in Japan. And somehow we took him out of the game."

The defeat (Japan did everything but win) left manager Oh even more determined to show who is the baseball boss in Asia.

Japan will get that chance if Mexico breaks its second-round losing streak and knocks the United States out of the semifinals with a win on Thursday.

"I would love to have that opportunity, since we lost twice to Korea," Oh said. "Both games were one-run games, and in both games we gave up two runs in the eighth inning.

"We have a saying in Japan that the truth will come out the third time around. So we would love that third opportunity to play against Korea one more time, and this time we would like to have a good win."

Although the victories have put to rest Ichiro Suzuki's pre-tournament bravado -- "I want to win in such a fashion that they [the Koreans] won't think they can beat us for 30 years" -- no one was making a case for clear Korean superiority.

"I don't think we can say we are better than Japan just because of these two wins," said Jong Beom Lee.

Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.