Japan has a date with Korea in final
Backed by five-run fourth, country will defend Classic title Monday
On Sunday, the journey led Japan to Dodger Stadium and a clash with a Team USA squad loaded with Major Leaguers and a boisterous crowd of 43,630, the most for a World Baseball Classic game on American soil.
The result was one for the Japanese history books.
Japan 9, USA 4.
Japan is now headed to the World Baseball Classic championship game to defend its title against Korea in the fifth meeting between the two countries in this tournament. The teams split two games in Pool A at the Tokyo Dome and split two games at PETCO Park in the second round.
Overall, Korea holds a 4-3 advantage in two Classics, although Japan defeated Korea in a single-elimination semifinal game three years ago on its way to the inaugural championship. Korea defeated Venezuela, 10-2, in the other semifinal game on Saturday.
On Sunday, the Japanese won by employing the style that has made them famous: fundamental baseball and strong starting pitching, this time from Red Sox right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka. The country also played flawless defense and pounded out 10 hits. Japan manager Tatsunori Hara did his part, writing in seven left-handed hitters in the starting lineup against Team USA starter Roy Oswalt.
The strategy worked. Of the six hits Oswalt allowed, five of them came to left-handed hitters.
Oswalt's only hit allowed to a right-handed hitter was an RBI double by shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima that capped Japan's five-run fourth and knocked Oswalt out of the game with his team behind, 6-2. Major League pitchers have not been a problem for the Japanese offense. Before the start of the second round in San Diego, Japan beat the Giants with starter Tim Lincecum, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, on the mound in Scottsdale, Ariz. The next day, Japan beat Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano in Mesa, Ariz.
"We came up with strategies and were able to come up with variations of the strategies," Hara said. "I believe that was apparent today. We were able to get the big win."
Matsuzaka did his part. He gave up a home run to Baltimore second baseman Brian Roberts on his second pitch of the game, and gave up another run when Mets third baseman David Wright smashed a double to center field that scored Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins to push USA ahead, 2-1, in the third inning.
It would be Team USA's only lead of the game. As for Matsuzaka, he was replaced two outs into the top of fifth inning by reliever Toshiya Sugiuchi after allowing two runs on five hits in 4 2/3 innings. Dice-K picked up the win, his third in this year's tournament. He is 6-0 in two Classics.
Japan began to take control of the game in the fourth, when designated hitter Atsunori Inaba and first baseman Michihiro Ogasawara hit back-to-back singles. Inaba scored on a fielding error to tie the game at 2, and Ogasawara came home on a sacrifice fly to right field by Kenji Johjima, the second of three sacrifices by the Mariners catcher in the game.
Second baseman Akinori Iwamura followed Johjima with an RBI triple to extend the lead to 4-2. Third baseman Munenori Kawasaki's single scored Iwamura for Japan's fifth run to set up the showdown between Oswalt and Nakajima.
Nakajima won. You can argue the entire country won Sunday.
"I really respect American baseball, so the fact that we were able to play against the American team was wonderful," Hara said. "The fact that we won today is something that even for the Japanese baseball world is something that will remain in history."
USA did not go down without a fight.
Trailing, 6-2, with one out in the top of the eighth inning, Team USA scored two runs on a double by first baseman Mark DeRosa to cut Japan's lead to two runs. But Japanese reliever Takahiro Mahara recovered to strike out pinch-hitter Evan Longoria and Roberts grounded out to the pitcher for the final out of the inning.
In the bottom of the eighth, Johjima contributed again with a sacrifice bunt that moved pinch-runner Yasuyuki Kataoka from first to second base. Kataoka eventually scored as part of a three-run inning to give Japan a 9-4 lead. In the second inning, Johjima's sacrifice to right field scored Inaba for Japan's first run of the game.
"I was able to play against America is something that is very much going to be a memory for me," Johjima said. "It's overwhelming for me."
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.