Sunday, March 05, 2006

Korea: Asian Champions

After shelacking China and Taipei in the opening rounds of the WBC, Japan and Korea faced off having already qualified for the trip to America. Japan beat China 18-2 and Taipei 14-3. Korea first beat Taipei 2-0 and then China 10-1. An inning of competetive baseball was nary to be found to date. Don't think this game meant nothing for these two teams and their respective nations, however.

Korea and Japan share a tenuous relationship born of national pride, intertwined and often brutal histories, and deep seated racial tension. Whenever the nations meet in competition there is an air of nastiness about it. This game was another chapter in that long history, and Korea walked away with bragging rights in Asia.

Japan started Shunsuke Watanabe of Bobby Valentine's champion Chiba Lotte Marines. Watanabe is talked about in terms of future Major League service, but I'm not sure I see it. He is a right-handed submarine pitcher who throws a lot of junk, but leaves too many balls around the zone to be effective in The Show. If he ever comes, expect to see him as a middle reliever, or long man.

Korea went with Sun Woo(Sunny) Kim of the Colorado Rockies to kick things off. He gave up a first inning run to Japan on a hustling base hit by Fukuoka Hawks strong man Nobuhiko Matsunaka scoring Tsuyoshi Nishioka of Lotte. An inning later, light hitting Munenori Kawasaki of Fukuoka, hitting ninth, popped a solo shot over the right field fence to extend the lead to 2-0.

Kim looked shaky and was very lucky to hold Japan to 2 runs. This game would have ended differently if not for an Andruw Jones-esque catch in right field by Incheon SK Wyverns player Jin Young Lee. The catch came with the bases loaded and two out, and had he missed the ball would have rolled to the wall and all 3 runners would surely have scored, making it 5-0. I turned to my wife and said, "That guy just saved the game for Korea. If they come back to win, that was the play."

Fast forward a few innings and Korea has New York Mets pitcher, and reknowned "Japan Killer", Dae-Sung Koo in the game to hold it close. Koo was spectacular and showed his MLB know-how in keeping the Japanese hitters off balance and completely fooled for 2 full innings. It gave the Koreans a chance to catch their breath and scratch a run out to build their confidence and set the stage for some late game heroics.

Things turned ugly for Japan in the 8th inning. With a 2-1 lead, Japan opted for Yakult Swallows lefty Hirotoshi Ishii instead of Texas Rangers stud Akinori Otsuka. With a one run game at hand, the heart of the Korean order up, and bragging rights for Asia on the line, I again turned to my wife and said, "They're playing with fire here. Otsuka can easily bring this home...."

Ishii was predictably off. The pressure got to him and he began to overthrow. He's billed as a guy who throws in the mid-90s, but we all know how that can turn out. After a base hit, Ishii was forced to contend with Japan League All-Star player and champion Seung Yeop Lee, who topped 30 home runs for Bobby V. this year and hit 56 for his Korean ballclub before heading East. It didn't take long before the count was 3-1 and Ishii lobbed a hideous flat slider that hung high in the zone. Lee didn't miss it, and it ended up 25 rows back behind Ichiro in right. 3-2 Korea.

Otsuka pitched the 9th and struck out the side easily. It was fun to watch a legit major leaguer show his skill. Too bad for Japan it didn't come an inning earlier. Likewise, Japan had to face Padres pitcher Chan Ho Park in the bottom of the inning and all three guys went quietly into the night, including a typically Japanese 1 out, no one on base, bunt by the guy who hit a homer in the 2nd, Kawasaki, and a game ending pop up from Ichiro. Japan was stunned and kim chee was on the house all over Seoul tonight.

The known major league quantities showed why they are in The Show, and I think this game really illustrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that Asian baseball is still about AAAA level, somewhere between MLB and the minors. A few standouts make us all take notice, but most of the rosters are incomplete. Let's keep an eye on Matsuzaka when Japan plays in the next round in the US. He's the lone figure of intrigue from either of these ballclubs.

Congratulations to Asia Round Champion South Korea!