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Japan secures a date with big rival

March 23, 2009|Kevin Baxter

They call it the World Baseball Classic. But don't let the name fool you.

Because although the tournament began nearly three weeks ago with 16 teams from six continents playing in four countries, it will end tonight at Dodger Stadium almost as it began -- with Japan playing South Korea.

Japan, the defending tournament champion, made sure of that Sunday with a 9-4 victory over the United States in front of a festive 43,630, turning America's Redeem Team back one game short of full redemption for its eighth-place finish in the first WBC.

Which, if you ask anyone from Japan or South Korea, is exactly as it should be.

"We're the two teams at the top of the world," Japanese Manager Tatsunori Hara said through an interpreter. "We were able to come to that stage together.

"It could be the game of the century."

Well, maybe the rematch of the century.

The teams, after all, have already met four times in this tournament, settling nothing: They split two first-round games in Tokyo, where South Korea won the pool title, then split two second-round games in San Diego, where Japan won the pool title.

"I have great respect for Korea," Hara said. "But I never thought we would be playing them five times."

The history between these two often-bitter rivals reaches back well beyond that, however.

It reaches beyond last summer's Olympics, where South Korea, using 16 players on its current WBC roster, beat Japan twice on its way to the gold medal. It reaches beyond the first WBC three years ago, where Japan eliminated South Korea in the semifinals on its way to the championship. And it reaches beyond the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where South Korea beat Japan to win the bronze medal.

It even reaches beyond baseball. Which is why South Korea's players have taken to planting their nation's flag on the mound after important victories over Japan, an act of intense political significance in both Japan, which once invaded and annexed its neighbor, and in South Korea, where neither the invasion nor the annexation have been forgotten.

"There's a rivalry there because there's always going to be competition between those two teams," said Acey Kohrogi, director of Asian operations for the Dodgers. "The rivalry has been going on for a long time."

In the final, Korea is expected to start former major leaguer Jungkeun Bong, who has already beaten Japan twice in the tournament. The Japanese, having used both their top starters, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish, against the U.S., probably will counter with Hisashi Iwakuma, a sinkerball pitcher who won 21 games and Japan's version of the Cy Young Award last summer.

The decision to start Matsuzaka against a U.S. lineup familiar with the Boston Red Sox right-hander looked like a mistake in the early going Sunday, with Brian Roberts driving the second pitch of the game over the center-field wall to give the Americans a 1-0 lead.

And Matsuzaka, who led the American League in walks last summer, didn't exactly settle down after that, falling behind on 16 of the 22 batters he faced and giving up another run in the third inning on David Wright's two-out double. But he still managed to come away with his sixth consecutive WBC win after his opportunistic teammates batted around in the fourth, parlaying five hits and an error into a five-run rally and a 6-2 lead.

The U.S. threatened to come back in the eighth inning, when Mark DeRosa doubled in two runs to bring the tying run to the plate. But Takahiro Mahara struck out Evan Longoria and got Roberts to ground out to end the threat before Japan, taking advantage of the third U.S. error, tacked on three unearned insurance runs in the ninth.

"All in all, we put on a good show," U.S. Manager Davey Johnson said. "I thought our guys played well."

But even he conceded the night, as well as the tournament, has belonged to South Korea and Japan.

"Baseball has grown," Johnson said. "But nowhere to the extent, as far as I'm concerned, as [in] Korea and Japan."

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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