Japan and Korea familiar foes at Classic

Championship game will be fifth matchup between nations in tournament

Jung Keun Bong will be making his third start against Japan in the 2009 Classic tonight. (Getty)

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The 2009 World Baseball Classic thus far has been a festival of 38 games played by 16 teams from all over the world.

Now it's down to one game and two teams from neighboring nations.

Really, it is down to the rubber game of a best-of-five series between two familiar foes who are neck and neck in international baseball competition.

This is the one game that both teams have been waiting to play since the tournament began almost three weeks ago and, just perhaps, were destined to play all along: A Classic final.

Japan and Korea meeting for the championship of the '09 Classic should shock no one who has followed the tournament, watching as the defending champion and the 2008 Olympic champion have been sharp and efficient in winning six games each -- and losing only to each other, twice apiece.

When the two teams meet for the fifth time in the tournament Monday night at 9 p.m. ET at Dodger Stadium, they'll be way beyond familiarity and rivalry.

They're into historic territory.

"That we were able to come up to the stage together, I really feel great respect for the Koreans for that," Team Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said. "And at the same time, I feel like it's the game of the century."

It's certainly the culmination of a decade of competition between the two countries. Since the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the two teams have faced each other 15 times in international play, with Korea taking eight games and Japan taking seven. In those games, the runs scored are Japan 38, Korea 35. Six of those have come in the Classic, including a memorable meeting in Anaheim in '06 that almost cost Japan a semifinal berth.

In this go-round, both teams have benefited from excellent pitching, and they're both throwing their hottest starters for the final. Korea, which won a coin toss Sunday night to be declared the home team, goes with Jung Keun Bong (2-0, 0.66, 3G/2GS, 13.2 IP in the Classic), who has defeated Japan twice thus far. Japan turns to Hisashi Iwakuma (1-1, 0.73 ERA, 3G/2GS, 12.1 IP), who gave an ace effort in a 1-0 loss in the seeding game out of Pool A on March 9.

These two teams know each other as well as they know themselves, and all they did was find out more about each other in the first four meetings.

Here's a look at the first four meetings in this tournament:

March 7 in Tokyo
Japan 14, Korea 2
There was no indication going in that this would be the most lopsided game in the series history since the Sydney Olympics, much less that it would end on a mercy rule. Japan had begun the tournament with a 4-0 victory over China that wasn't exactly stirring, and Korea dispatched Chinese Taipei, 9-0. But Japan jumped all over Korea starter Kwang-Hyun Kim to the tune of eight runs in 1 1/3 innings. Japan's five extra-base hits accounted for a good chunk of the 16 total Japan has thus far in the tournament, compared to 77 singles. That included a homer from slugger Shuichi Murata, now out of the tournament with a hamstring injury.

March 9 in Tokyo
Korea 1, Japan 0
Korea turned the tables and earned the top seed out of Pool A with a masterpiece by Bong, who pitched 5 1/3 shutout innings on three hits, and the Korean bullpen took it the rest of the way on just three hits. Tae Kyun Kim's RBI double in the fourth accounted for all the offense.

March 17 in San Diego
Korea 4, Japan 1
Bong did it again, allowing just three hits in 5 1/3 innings, but giving up a run this time. Korea got to 22-year-old phenom Yu Darvish early, though he settled down to allow three runs -- all in the first -- on five hits in five innings, striking out seven.

March 19 in San Diego
Japan 6, Korea 2
This was perhaps the most intense game, despite the score, and came on the heels of Japan eliminating Cuba. A seesaw battle until a three-run eighth for Japan, this victory sent Japan to Los Angeles as the top seed out of Pool 1 in San Diego. The Koreans used six pitchers and the Japanese seven, and Japan's 15-hit attack proved too much.

When the rubber match takes place at Dodger Stadium -- which no doubt will have its fair share of thunder sticks, orange for Japan and light blue for Korea -- the two teams will come in with much in common.

"Korean players and Japanese players are excellent," said Korean outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, who plays for the Indians. "There is little difference between the two."

On Monday night, there will be one big difference: Only one will go home a Classic champion.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.