Korea clinches spot in Classic semis
Spirited first-inning outburst holds in victory over rival Japan
SAN DIEGO -- Korean outfielder Yong-Kyu Lee dug into dirt near the back of the batter's box with his left foot with the wiggling motion familiar to baseball players in any nation. He tapped the top of his left wrist with his right hand and then pushed down his helmet as he squatted into a crouching position.
Lee cocked his back leg, he tapped his front foot and by the time Japanese starter Yu Darvish was into his delivery, the outfielder had recoiled into hitting position.
Lee's bat, his distinct leg kick and Darvish's pitch all came together at the same time at home plate and the result was a sharp single to left field.
The crowd at PETCO Park went wild. It was the first inning and the first of many times Korea faithful would cheer during Korea's 4-1 win against Japan on Tuesday. With the victory, Korea secured a spot in the World Baseball Classic semifinals in Los Angeles. It will face the winner of Wednesday's matchup between Cuba and Japan on Thursday to determine the Pool 1 winner. The loser of the Cuba-Japan contest will be eliminated from the tournament.
"The most important thing is we became one of the four finalists," Korea manager In Sik Kim said. "I think Japan is at a higher level than us [in baseball], but that doesn't mean you always win. Sometimes they lose."
Korea doesn't lose often. The country is 5-1 in World Baseball Classic play this year.
"As always, the important thing for the Korean team is concentrating," Lee said. "Every player is happy about this [win], but this is not the end of it. There are more games left for us to play, and we will keep on doing our best."
After the single, Lee stole second base with the next hitter, Keun-Woo Jeong, at the plate. Jeong followed with a ground ball to second base and raced down the line in a full sprint. He safely slid headfirst into first base, again sending the crowd and his teammates into a frenzy.
Lee came home on a ground ball by left fielder Hyun-Soo Kim for Korea's first run. Jeong and Kim both scored on a single by Jin Young Lee to give Korea a 3-0 lead.
"I thought we were going to win this game," the manager said.
Darvish, the talented 22-year old Japanse pitching phenom, was human after all. Korean starter Jung Keun Bong did his best Superman impression, outpitching Darvish and limiting the Japanese offense to one run on three hits in his 5 1/3 innings pitched.
Bong's only blemish came in the fifth inning, when Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome hit a single to right field and eventually scored on a ground ball by Ichiro Suzuki.
Darvish recovered after the shaky first inning and finished with a respectable pitching line: three runs on four hits in five innings.
"The first three runs, that was big," Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said. "Tomorrow, we will just have to do our best to win."
Should Japan win Wednesday, the two teams will face off again Thursday and possibly again in the semifinals. Korea has defeated Japan two out of three times in World Baseball Classic play this year.
"There is a destiny," Ichiro said. "It's like a girl you said goodbye to, and then you bump into the same girl again on the street so many times, because there's a destiny to meet again. Maybe better, might as well get married if we are going to meet this frequently."
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.