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03/24/09 4:34 AM ET
Ichiro lifts Japan to Classic glory
After Korea ties it, country successfully defends its title in extras
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
LOS ANGELES -- It was one of those games for the ages that will certainly grow in proportion with the passage of time. One game, winner takes all for the second World Baseball Classic. A game at Dodger Stadium on Monday night that had more twists and turns than kabuki. The Japanese essentially had to win it twice. "That was as much intensity as you've seen in a baseball game in a long time," Commissioner Bud Selig said after the four-hour spectacular ended with Japan besting rival Korea, 5-3, in 10 innings. "It was incredible. It was really amazing." And so the Japanese are the champions once again, successfully defending their 2006 title. This time they can thank old faithful Ichiro Suzuki for the victory. The 35-year-old Mariners right fielder snapped a 3-3 tie with a two-run single on an eight-pitch at-bat against right-handed reliever Chang Yong Lim with runners on second and third and two outs in the 10th. Daisuke Matsuzaka was named MVP for the second consecutive Classic. He was 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA in this year's tournament, and he's 6-0 with a 1.95 ERA overall. In three years, Matsuzaka has won the Classic twice, the Classic MVP twice and the 2007 World Series as a member of the Red Sox. Try putting that all into perspective. "It's not something that everybody can experience, and it's not something that everybody can earn," said Matsuzaka, who defeated Team USA on Sunday night to put his country into the final game. "So I feel that I'm very lucky. I'm really thankful about the MVP. I didn't think that it was going to be me at all." The Japanese figured that the victory was secured in the eighth inning, when Akinori Iwamura gave them a 3-1 lead with a sacrifice fly, coming after Seiichi Uchikawa was moved to third on Atsunori Inaba's double. But the Koreans tied the score, 3-3, in the bottom of the ninth inning against hard-throwing 22-year-old Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish, who was brought in at the start of the inning to try and preserve Japan's one-run lead and the victory. Japan manager Tatsunori Hara actually let left-hander Toshiya Sugiuchi go out for warmups before striding to the mound to call for Darvish -- all part of the usual Asian gamesmanship. He lifted Sugiuchi with two Korean left-handed hitters coming up, because "in the bullpen, the pitcher who was the best is the one I picked. That's why I picked him," Hara said. It ultimately worked out, but not without a lot of trepidation. Darvish was erratic, striking out the leadoff hitter, Keun-Woo Jeong, and then walking Hyun-Soo Kim and Tae Kyun Kim on nine pitches to put runners on first and second with one out. Darvish then struck out Shin-Soo Choo, who earlier in the game had homered. But Bum Ho Lee singled to left, driving in the tying run. "I had a great opportunity in a game like this," Lee said. "I regret a little bit that we could not win." The Koreans had their chance, but Young Min Ko then whiffed to end the inning with the winning run on second. The game was played in front of a raucous crowd of 54,846, which set an all-time single-game Classic attendance record in the 78th game over the course of the first two tournaments. For the three games at Dodger Stadium, the crowds totaled 141,834 and the overall attendance for the tournament for 39 games was 801,408. Both were also new Classic records. The fans, banging dueling orange and blue Thunderstix all night long, reacted to the ebb and flow of the game with incredible thunder and enthusiasm as the 48-year-old facility literally shook up and down when Korea scored that ninth-inning run. "When I think about what we set out to do years ago, this is what we had in mind," Selig said. "Through all the years and all the conversations, it all crystallized in these moments." Like the Yankees and Red Sox in the U.S., the Koreans vs. the Japanese has turned into the preeminent baseball rivalry on the international scene. It was the fifth time in this Classic that the Asian nations had met, with the two teams splitting the first four games -- two in each of the first two rounds. "I believe [after all this], we are the best two teams in the world," said Jung Keun Bong, Korea's starting pitcher on Monday night. It may be hard to argue. Dating back to the '06 Classic, the Japanese and Koreans have met eight times. Three years ago, Korea won the first two games, but then was eliminated by the Japanese, 6-0, in the semifinal at San Diego's PETCO Park. Japan went on to defeat Cuba in the final game and win the inaugural Classic, but that 10-6 victory didn't have the drama or intensity of Monday night's epic. It seemed only fitting that for Japan, it would come down to Ichiro at the end. The first and most successful Japanese position to player to come to the U.S. Darvish became the winner, because Ichiro just wouldn't give in during his climatic at-bat. There was apparently some confusion between the Korean bench, catcher Min-ho Kang and Lim, who was told to pitch carefully to Ichiro before giving up the single, but apparently missed the sign. Kang, 23 years old, had just come into the game an inning earlier. "They did not convey signals well," Korean manager In-Sik Kim said. "The catcher understood the signs, but the pitcher didn't understand it very well. It was not to try to walk him, but to throw him a ball. If it did not work, then we would walk him. That was the strategy. So the pitcher and catcher did not communicate well. That hurt us in the end." Asked with the crowd roaring on every pitch if he was able to take a Zen approach at the plate, clearing everything from his mind as he faced Lim with the championship on the line, Ichiro chuckled. "I really wish I could've been in a state of Zen," he said. "But I thought about a whole lot of things. I kept thinking of all these things I shouldn't think about. Usually when that happens, I can't really hit. But I was able to hit. So I felt like I may have surpassed something in myself." Great players are able to overcome such obstacles to accomplish great things. And so it came to pass that way on a memorable night that will only grow in the glow of history.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.