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Japan's Win Counts Most

After losing twice to Korea in pool play, the Japanese beat their archrivals in semifinals, 6-0, and will face Cuba for Classic title Monday.

March 19, 2006|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Japan had lost three times in the World Baseball Classic, twice, bitterly, to Korea.

But, in a tournament it has found to be forgiving, Japan will play Cuba in Monday night's final after beating Korea, 6-0, in a semifinal game Saturday night at Petco Park.

Japan and Korea, baseball rivals along the lines of Yankees-Red Sox, with a cultural rivalry that runs much deeper, played for the third time, in the third ballpark, in less than two weeks.

Korea won the first two, celebrating the second by parading a Korean flag through the outfield at Angel Stadium, then plunging it into the mound.

Japan's loss appeared to knock it out of the tournament, but the U.S. lost the following day in Anaheim and a tie-breaker gave Japan one more shot at Korea.

"We are going to win," Ichiro Suzuki said between rounds, "by doing anything we can."

For starters, Japan Manager Sadaharu Oh moved Suzuki, his best hitter, from the leadoff spot to the three hole. Suzuki hadn't had a great tournament, but Japan had scored three runs in two WBC losses to Korea, and Oh needed the offense.

It didn't amount to much for six innings. Suzuki had two hits and two stolen bases after two at-bats, but didn't come up with a runner on base and was stranded at second both times.

When Japan did finally mount the rally that would deliver it to the final, Suzuki batted ninth in the five-run inning, and four runs already were in. He singled in the fifth run.

Korea had allowed eight runs through two rounds. Opponents had hit .180. Seven of its pitchers had not been scored upon.

And so it was that the seventh inning began, Korean fans seemingly making up most of the crowd of 42,639, chanting "Dae-Han-Min-Kook" ("Great Korea") and banging their noisemakers in a scoreless tie. They had seen Korea play the same game Wednesday night, then score twice late.

Three nights later, it was the Korean pitchers who were too true in the strike zone, the Japanese hitters who found Korean pitches with their bat barrels, and Korea that was out of tiebreakers.

Japan had six hits in the seventh, including a pivotal pinch home run by Kosuke Fukudome off Byung-Hyun Kim, who has given up his share of pivotal home runs in the major leagues. Hitoshi Tamura homered to lead off the eighth inning, giving Japan a 6-0 lead, which it sat on through a 45-minute rain delay. Japan starter Koji Uehara pitched seven scoreless innings.

Otherwise, it had been a pretty good couple of weeks for Korea, whose crisp defensive play and exceptional pitching not only brought three-game sweeps in the first two rounds, but news that its Defense Ministry had rewarded the players by waiving the mandatory two-year military service.

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