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WORLD BASEBALL CLASSIC

Japan beats South Korea in a classic finale

Ichiro drives in winning runs in 10th inning of 5-3 victory over South Korea as Japan wins WBC title.

March 24, 2009|Kevin Baxter

Monday's World Baseball Classic final was just that: a classic final.

It featured great pitching, timely hitting, some spectacular defense, and a passionate, vocal crowd of 54,846 at Dodger Stadium. So much excitement they needed 10 innings to pack it all in.

In fact, about the only thing separating it from a major league playoff game was, well, teams made up of major league players.

The Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki, who delivered the game-winning two-run single in the 10th, was one of only three big-leaguers Japan used in its 5-3 win over South Korea. And the losers had only one major league player on their roster.

Three years ago, Japan won the first WBC with two big leaguers and last summer South Korea won an Olympic gold medal with none.

Which raises a question for all the big league teams that have seen their stars lose to South Korea and Japan: If you can't beat them, why don't you let them join you?

"I think just about everybody here could probably play in the big leagues," Davey Johnson, a former All-Star player and World Series manager, said before his U.S. team -- featuring 28 major leaguers -- lost to Japan in the WBC semifinals. "Fundamentally, I don't think anybody plays the game as well or practices as hard as the Japanese."

Added Venezuelan Manager Luis Sojo, a member of five World Series winners, after his team lost its WBC semifinal to South Korea: "Surprises me that there aren't that many Koreans in the big leagues. But I think from now on, there will be."

Japan, which had 16 players on opening-day major league rosters last spring, is a known producer of world-class talent, though complicated and expensive rules put in place by Japan's domestic leagues make it difficult for U.S. teams to access that talent.

South Korea, meanwhile, with an eight-team professional league that is younger than half the players on its national team, remains largely overlooked. Despite two Olympic medals in three tries, second-place finishes in the 2005 World Cup and 2002 Intercontinental Cup and a third-place finish in the first WBC, the country has sent only 12 players to the majors, four of whom played in the big leagues last season.

That, promised one National League scout who has followed South Korea throughout the WBC, is about to change.

"I've been surprised. I think a lot of people have," said the scout, whose team forbids him from speaking on the record. "Maybe I was just ignorant. I was ignorant. If you don't think some of these Koreans can play in the big leagues, then that's prejudice."

The only Korean currently in the big leagues, Cleveland Indians outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, made his presence felt in the bottom of the fifth when he golfed the third pitch of the inning over the center-field wall to erase a 1-0 deficit.

Japan went back in front in the seventh, scratching out a run on a single, a stolen base, a bunt hit and Hiroyuki Nakajima's run-scoring single to left, then expanded the lead an inning later on a sacrifice fly by Akinori Iwamura, who spends his summers with the Tampa Bay Rays.

But South Korea wouldn't quit, scoring in the eighth on Bum Ho Lee's leadoff double and a one-out sacrifice fly, then tying the score in the ninth on two walks and Lee's two-out single against Japanese phenom Yu Darvish.

Ichiro bailed him out in Japan's next at-bat, though, and after Darvish finally got the final out the Japanese celebrated with a dog-pile worthy of . . . well, a World Series champion.

"Korean players and Japanese players are excellent," Choo said. "We have basic skills. Perhaps better basic skills compared with major league players."

After Monday, few would disagree.

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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