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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Yattaa!: Japan Rides Big Innings To Finals, Defeats Team USA

On the strength of a four-run fourth and a three-run eighth, Japan secured the other spot in the World Baseball Classic finals by defeating Team USA 9-4.

Davey Johnson opted to go with Roy Oswalt over Jake Peavy, the only two starters who could have pitched. Japan's manager, Tatsunori Hara, countered with Daisuke Matsuzaka; he could have gone with Yu Darvish as well.

Team USA struck first; Brian Roberts hit a leadoff home run off of a fastball. Japan tied the score in the bottom of the second on a sac fly by Kenji Johjima. The United States countered in the third with a single by Jimmy Rollins, a stolen bases and a double by David Wright. Matsuzaka left two men on in the innning to get out of the jam.

After Team USA left two on in the fourth, Japan struck off of Oswalt. Designated hitter Atsunori Inaba led off with a single and moved to second on first baseman Michihiro Ogasawara's single. Kosuke Fukudome then hit a hard smash between first and second that Roberts misplayed on a hop and Inaba came around to score while Ogasawara moved to third. Johijma hit another sac fly and Ogasawara scored. Akinori Iwamura then smacked a ball over Adam Dunn's head in right for a triple, driving in Fukudome. Munenori Kawasaki continuted the hit parade as he singled home Iwamura. After Ichiro Suzuki grounded out to third, shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima singled home Kawasaki. Oswalt was removed after Kawasaki's single and John Grabow got left fielder Norichika Aoki to ground out to second.

Matsuzaka, Toshiya Sugiuchi and Masahiro Tanaka held the United States scoreless from the fifth to the seventh, allowing just a single, two walks and triple the whole way. Team USA's bullpen was just as good from the fifth to seventh innings, allowing just two singles and a walk. The key was using three left-handers in a row: Grabow, Jay Howell and Matt Thornton. Thornton provided the highlight of the pen's work; he struck out the side in the seventh.

The United States mounted a rally in the eighth off of Takahiro Mahara. With one out, Ryan Braun doubled down the left field line. Brian McCann battled Mahara, fouling off four two-strike pitches and then drew a walk. DeRosa then tripled down the left field line, scoring both Braun and McCann, making the score 6-4. Team USA's newest member, Evan Longoria, was sent up to pinch-hit. Mahara got him to strike out and then got Roberts to ground out back to him.

Joel Hanrahan came on to face Fukudome in the ninth. The center fielder drew a walk and was replaced with pinch-runner Yasoyuki Kataoka. Johjima sacrified him to second and then Iwamura grounded out to Roberts, allowing Kataoka to go to third. With two out, Kawasaki hit a grounder to deep short. Derek Jeter's throw pulled DeRosa off the bag and Kawasaki reached, scoring Kataoka. Scot Shields was brought in to face Ichiro. Kawasaki promptly stole second and then scampered home on Ichiro's first hit of the day. Nakajima then hit a soft liner to right that fooled Dunn so badly it landed in front of him and bounced behind him. Center fielder Shane Victorino had to go over and get it as Nakajima went to second base. Aoki grounded to second to end the inning.

Hara wanted to make sure Japan would win the game by putting pitching phenom Darvish in to finish the job. He got Jeter to ground out for the first out. Rollins hit a single, but Wright struck out swinging. Rollins moved to second on defensive indifference, but Dunn struck out looking to end the game.

I can say it was a fun ride, and I'm proud of Team USA for getting this far, in spite of all their problems during the whole tourney. I just can't help but think: what is it going to take for Team USA to win the WBC? Because they're compromised entirely of MLB players, they're at an inherent disadvantage. Why? Simple. They're thrown out of their normal spring training routines and aren't completely ready for real baseball action. I believe that most are in basic playing shape, because most athletes nowadays work to stay in shape all year long. Injuries can happen anywhere at anytime, for whatever reason; they're not a particular concern to me.

After Monday, we'll see the World Baseball Classic again in 2013. I'd love to see what kind of team the United States can put out.


SS Hiroyuki Nakajima, Japan - 2-5, 2 2B, 2 RBI

3B Munemori Kawasaki, Japan - 2-4, 2 R, RBI, SB

DH Jimmy Rollins, United States - 4-4, 2B, R, RBI

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