Commentary

Darvish, Japan can't solve Korea

With another win over rivals, Koreans proving to be the Far East's premier team

Originally Published: March 17, 2009
By Jorge Arangure Jr. | ESPN The Magazine

SAN DIEGO -- The much anticipated game between Korea and Japan was to be a showcase for Japanese ace Yu Darvish, and in a sense, it was. Scouts who pointed their speed guns at Darvish as if they were thieves in a holdup saw a vast array of pitches: a fastball that topped 95 mph, a slider that twisted like a boomerang, a cutter that moved in on lefties and a curveball that still needs some maturing.

Undoubtedly, should Darvish, 22, be posted by his Japanese team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, he would command a posting fee that easily would equal the $51.11 million paid by the Red Sox to negotiate for Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.

But the ramifications from Tuesday's 4-1 Korea victory against Japan went beyond scouting evaluations. This was yet another sign of a transition of power in Asia.

It no longer would be uncouth to say Korea, not Japan, is the premier team in the Far East. Korea now is 6-3 against its bitter rival over the past three years in major international competition, a stretch that includes two wins against Japan in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing during Korea's run to the gold medal. While Japan still produces the most major leaguers in the region, Korea is winning the head-to-head battle.

"Our level of focus and team unity is definitely better than Japan's," Korea starting pitcher Jungkeun Bong said. "Our confidence is at peak level. We're not even all that big physically; however when you have confidence, you can do special things."

Korea manager In Sik Kim continues to play the underdog card, although how much of an underdog can a team be when it continues to beat its supposedly more talented rival?

"Japan is one of the world's top teams, and they're definitely more talented than we are," Kim said. "But because of [Tuesday night's] win, we're the first team from this region to make it to the semifinals [this year]."

Tuesday's result means fans won't see a rematch between Japan and Cuba in the WBC final. Instead, the two teams will meet Wednesday in a high-stakes elimination game. Japan beat Cuba 6-0 on Sunday, and neither team had announced a starting pitcher for Wednesday's game as of Tuesday night. Japan now has beaten Cuba twice in WBC play and appears to carry a psychological advantage.

"Let's just say there might be a difference between the Cuban team and Japan team," Japanese manager Tatsunori Hara said. "Even a more powerful team can lose on any given night. In that sense, baseball is fun. But at the same time, that's also why baseball is a difficult sport."

Darvish's debut on American soil was marred by only his first-inning struggles. He could not harness his impressive array of pitches. His fastball danced all over the plate. His curveball and slider often bent outside the strike zone. By the end of the first, the Koreans had mounted a surprising 3-0 lead, although Darvish's defense also was partly to blame. While Darvish retired 13 of the final 14 hitters he faced, six of them by strikeout, the momentum already had swung toward the Koreans.

One wonders whether these two rivals have grown tired of playing each other. In WBC play alone, the two have met six times, with Korea winning four. Should Japan win Wednesday against Cuba, the two would meet again Thursday in what would be simply a seeding game. And if both advance to the semifinals, it's possible the two could meet in the WBC final, which would mean the two teams would face each other a total of five times during this year's tournament.

"It's like a girl you said goodbye to and then you bump into the same girl again on the street many times, because there's a destiny to meet again," Ichiro Suzuki said Monday of playing Korea. "Maybe better, we might as well get married if we are going to meet this frequently."

It's almost past cliché to say the Koreans win because they have sound fundamentals. But their attention to detail is unmistakable. Of the four teams in the San Diego region, the Koreans are the only team to regularly take pregame infield practice after batting practice. After infield practice, the team meets with infield coach Jung Ill Ryu to discuss any flaws that occurred during practice.

Korea appears ready to face any challenge, including that of its rival.

"At the first tournament, we just had the strong will to beat Japan, and really that's all we had," outfielder Jin Young Lee said. "But in the second tournament, we of course have the same desire, but now we can also focus on our rival."

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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