Pacific Rim comes up strong in Classic
By Jeff Idelson
The second of two semifinal World Baseball Classic games came to an end last night here at historic Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. The Japanese national side proved too tough for its U.S. counterpart, beating the American team in a game that was closer than the final score indicated.
So Japan, which sealed victory in the 2006 Classic by beating Cuba, will defend its title by playing intracontinental rival Korea tonight, with first pitch slated for 9 p.m. ET.
Last night’s game had a similar feeling to the Korea-Venezuela semifinal on Saturday. Korea, featuring but one current Major Leaguer, Cleveland Indians outfielder Shin Soo Choo, faced a Venezuela club that was stocked with Major Leaguers. As any good team will do, the Koreans took advantage of five Venezuela errors and parlayed that into a bunch or runs and a lopsided victory.
The U.S. also played sloppily defensively, and Daisuke Matsuzaka was effective enough to keep the U.S. in check, allowing two runs over five innings. A three-run ninth inning for Japan turned a 6-4 game into a lopsided 9-4 final outcome.
The pageantry in the stands was vintage international sports. Japanese flags, thundersticks, balloons, homemade signs and constant enthusiasm gave Team Japan support and took any thoughts of home-field advantage away from the U.S. True, the support for the U.S. was strong, but there was great balance.
Japanese baseball Commissioner Ryozo Kato and all-time home-run leader Sadaharu Oh were in the stands, sitting in front of me. I first met the commissioner last spring in Washington, D.C., when U.S. Navy Secretary Gordon England invited me to lunch in his Pentagon office with Kato and Stan Kasten of the Nationals.
At the time, Commissioner Kato, a very big baseball fan with a deep understanding of U.S. baseball history, was Japan’s ambassador to the United States. He is very proud of his national team.
After the Korea-Venezuela game, Brad Horn and I visited with U.S. reliever Brad Ziegler, who last year ran a record-string of scoreless frames for a pitcher starting his Major League career (and yes, he did donate his spikes). Ziegler, an impressive kid who has tremendous respect for the game and visited the Hall of Fame last fall to enjoy the game’s history, felt that the team chemistry was strong, allowing the U.S. to reach the semis. Chemistry in sports does matter, but the U.S. side just did not jell last night.
Before the game yesterday, the team seemed loose. David Wright, who delivered the game-winning walkoff hit to propel the U.S. over Puerto Rico and into the semifinals, donated the bat he used to the Hall in the U.S. dugout. “I am so honored to be asked to have something in Cooperstown,” he told me. I let him know how grateful we were to him for recognizing that fans would want to see his bat for many years to come and thanked him for sharing it with the baseball public.
Tonight’s matchup should be terrific. You have a hungry team in Korea, whose players want to show they can beat a world-class team like Japan. The Koreans have 2008 league most valuable player Kwang-Hyun Kim, who was 16-4 with a 2.39 ERA last year, as well as the two players who finished second and third in the voting, outfielder Hyun-Soo Kim (.357 average) and first baseman Tae Kyun Kim (.324, 31 home runs, 92 RBI).
Japan has a host of talent, led by Ichiro Suzuki, who has 3,000 combined hits between the U.S. and Japan, pitching phenom Yu Darvish, who was 16-4 with a 1.88 ERA for the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2008, and standout outfielder Norichika Aoki (.347 average in 2008).
It should be a great game, and the Pacific Rim again is showing the world that baseball is as important there as it is in Latin America or the Untied States.
Jeff Idelson is the president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.