Japanese finally catch a break
SAN DIEGO -- Team Korea's March of conquest ground to a halt Saturday, stopped by the scintillating pitching of Koji Uehara and a big home run by star substitute Kosuke Fukudome.
The right-hander crushed the Koreans under the weight of his plus forkball and good fastball to run his record in international play to 12-0. He allowed three hits over seven innings, racking up three of his seven strikeouts after his teammates finally managed a big inning against the WBC's best defensive team.
"We had just scored five runs, so I was determined to hold them scoreless in the seventh," said the 30-year-old, who faced four men in the inning and struck out three. "I think the excitement my teammates generated carried me over the top."
After two gut-wrenching losses to Korea, one in Tokyo and one in Anaheim, Japan continued to waste its early opportunities by flailing at pitches outside the zone and struggling to reach the fences on a cold rainy night at massive Petco Park.
The big home run finally came in the seventh, when Fukudome, mired in a slump and lacking in confidence, was sent in as a pinch-hitter and pulled a low-inside fastball into the seats in right.
"I think my emotion carried it [into the seats]," said Fukudome, who came to the plate after team leader Nobuhiko Matsunaka hustled a leadoff double to right.
Matsunaka managed what few had been able to do, get one past slick right fielder Jin Yang Lee. Lee's glove and arm had robbed Japan of four runs already in their two previous games -- both decided by a single run.
Lee had done it again in the second inning, putting an exclamation point on a trio of super fielding plays by sprinting to the corner and ending the inning with a ballet-style catch.
But Lee didn't get this one and the stocky Matsunaka never slowed making the turn at first base. The slugger slid headfirst into the bag and pounded it with his fist for emphasis.
"I wasn't particularly confident at that moment," said Fukudome, the Chunichi Dragons' star. "But the way Matsunaka slid into second ... that fired us up. I was determined to swing at anything."
He took two from Byung-Hyun Kim out of the zone -- though the second was called a strike -- before Kim came inside and Fukudome flattened it.
"For a while, he had not been hitting well," said manager Sadaharu Oh. "He hit well in practice [on Friday] and in batting practice today, but I had already made up the lineup [without him in it]. But having watched him, I knew I wanted to use him if we had a scoring opportunity.
"When they went with the side-arming right-hander, I felt no one but Fukudome would do."
The real irony was not so much that Fukudome rose to the occasion from the bench after going just 2-for-19 as a starter, but that Japan's biggest home run came because the nation's biggest home-run hitter chose club over country.
Fukudome, easily the best hitter in Japan's Central League and a veteran of both the Atlanta and Athens Olympics, had begged off when Japan came calling. He only agreed to play after Hideki Matsui choose not to abandon the New York Yankees in their vital days of spring training and exhibition games.
"It felt good, very good," said Fukudome.
Things are clearly looking up for Oh and his men.
Twice beaten by the superior spirit and resolve of the Koreans and robbed yet again by American umpire Bob Davidson, Japan needed a break to even make it to the semifinals.
With the indomitable Uehara on the mound, with the reluctant and shy Fukudome stepping into the limelight like nobody's business, with Matsunaka's in-your-face hustle and daring, Team Hard Luck finally managed to defeat Team Pluck.
Next up for Japan is Cuba. After announcing his starting pitchers well in advance for each game, manager Oh took a page out of the Cuban playbook and declined to name him on Saturday.
"I have some players in mind," he said. "But I'd like to let the Cubans think on it for a while."
And what of Team Korea?
The fans who flocked to each game in Tokyo, in Anaheim and in San Diego got the ride of their lives.
"Throughout, our players did an excellent job, a superb job," said Korea skipper Kim. "We played seven games, and we won over Japan twice and all the other teams, and this is only our first defeat. I want to thank the players for their efforts."
Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.
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