Monday, March 20, 2006

Oh Japan

Oh Japan. By "Oh", I mean Sadaharu, and "Oh no!". The Japanese legend won this game almost in spite of himself, pulling ace pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka after 4 innings with a 6-1 lead. "Oh" also means "King" in Japanese and that's exactly where Japan finds itself. Japan has definitively proven that it is the best baseball country in the world. Against perennial international champion Cuba, Team Nippon, behind world class pitching from Daisuke Matsuzaka has emerged as the champions of the 1st World Baseball Classic 10-6.

The first order of business is to come clean about a couple of things. I told my wife before this competition that she shouldn’t get too excited because Japan will be competitive, but had little chance to win it all. Second, I told my co-worker, Mizutani-sensei, that Japan had no chance to beat the US and was quite arrogant in saying so. Finally, I picked Cuba to beat Japan 5-3, despite my heart being with them in this game. I owe all of them an apology and heartfelt congratulations. I guess, by "Rice and Beans", I meant "natto gohan".

Here’s how I want to talk about this. First, I took comprehensive notes of the pre-game and the first two innings to establish the mood and flow of the game. They’re here almost completely unedited. What follows is a brief review of the rest of the game, and my thoughts on what this whole thing means. For comprehensive photos of the game check here for the Mainichi News collection. Enjoy.

Pre game….Oh looks so proud in the dugout practicing his pitching grip…. He was a Koshien pitcher, who showed great determination in pitching every game, and facing up to discrimination against his half-Chinese ancestry…. Read his autobiography.

Cuban team standing respectfully throughout the very long anthem…..what were they thinking…..

I missed one meeting between these teams in my preview. In 1985 at the Intercontinental Cup - Japan beat Cuba.

Oh and Hank Aaron pose for pictures before Aaron throws out the 1st pitch. I thought Aaron looked a little uncomfortable when the game was live, but looking at the photos, I think I was mistaken. They probably have shared a lot of photo sessions together over the years.

Japanese announcers still dislike Bob Davidson as they run down the umpires and mention he’s at first. They say, “He’s here again. Even now it feels bad to see him….but that’s in the past.” Even Davidson’s explanation of the ground rules to Oh can’t dampen his obvious enthusiasm as he beams throughout

Looks like I picked the right starter for Cuba, Ormari Romero. It was a stab in the dark, but it made sense in terms of rest and success in the WBC, where other pitchers have struggled a bit. The 38-year-old veteran is on the big stage for perhaps the final time. He throws a heavy sinker/curve like Contreras. It looks wet, and he gets the first batter easily. Romero has lost the zone. Cuba’s bullpen is up with one out in the 1st and no one on. They’re always ready. Ugly pitching, and he’s yanked after only 23 pitches with the bases chucked. Ouch.

#23 Odelin enters and also can’t throw strikes, falling behind Tamura 2-1. He hit him and Japan leads 1-0. Is this the dominating juggernaut that always seems so unbeatable in international competition? Japan isn’t beating them; they are imploding. Odelin came back nicely to strike out Satozaki. Ogasawara was at Athens when Matsuzaka and Japan beat Cuba last. Another run is walked in. 2-0 Japan. Ug-LEE. Imae, the hero of the Japan Series for Bobby V. and Lotte, delivers a single, laced up the middle on a fat pitch down the middle. Japan 4-0 in the first before Cuba even comes to bat. Pitching change #2.

Norberto Gonzales enters with 2 out and runners on 1st and 2nd, and retires Aoki on a little grounder to Gourriel at second. It was close at first. What will the Cuban bats do to respond? Before the inning starts, I imagine that Matsuzaka will come out pumped and he’ll be dealing. If he can go 1-2-3, Cuba may be broken. If Cuba can rally and scratch out even one run, it’s still a game. If they get more, it’s on.

Captain Paret is a flat out stud. I think it’s going to be a game. First at bat for Cuba and he pounds a ridiculous home run into the left field stands. Japan 4, Cuba 1. Enriquez had a good swing but grounds out to third. The meeting I’ve been waiting for between Matsuzaka and Gourriel comes early. On the first pitch, Gourriel takes a big swing and is a bit late. He shows very quick wrists. The second pitch is an overpowering fastball for a strike. Pitch three eats him up and he grounds out to short. Fast. Matsuzaka continues to look overpowering against Borrero. Ahead in the count 1-2, he changes pace and Borrero swings over the top of the dying quail. 3 outs. Paret establishes Cuba a bit, but Matsuzaka settles down and dominates batters 2 through 4. It’s up to Cuba’s pitching to string together 3 or 4 innings of zeros, or this game could be history, quick.

Paret flashes leather against Ichiro in the 2nd. That’s why he’s the captain. Keepin’ them in the game. There’s something Jeter-esque about him.

Matsuzaka threw the nastiest pitch I’ve seen in years to Cepeda in the bottom of the 2nd to strike him out. A vicious spitting slider that started at Cepeda’s knees and cut over the plate at the last second. Wow! He’s blowing heat by these guys. If anyone catches up to his fastball they’ll hit it 10 miles, but they can’t hit it and they look like Little Leaguers against Roger Clemens! Urrutia down swinging. Garlobo up to take his swings. He’s been ridiculous in the National Season in Cuba, and he’s been ridiculous in the WBC. Single to right on a nice line drive. Matsuzaka ends any idea of scoring by blowing away veteran catcher Ariel Pestano, who hit cleanup against him in Athens. Is this game over already? If Matsuzaka can hand the ball over to Otuska directly, yes. If the pen gets into the game at any point…..

Bottom 3: Paret gets robbed on Ball 4 high, when home plate umpire calls a late strike. He then gets blown away by straight Daisuke heat.

Top 4: With Ichiro batting and 2 out, Nishioka gets picked off trying to steal. Stupid.

Petco is a pitcher’s park as a half dozen Cuban hitters fly out to the warning track during this game. In either home country they’d all have been home runs.

Bottom 4: Kawasaki flashes leather, robbing Frederich Cepeda of a hit up the middle.

Top 5th: Ichiro leads off with a double down the line. Typical Ichiro style as he hit the ball off the end of the bat and started to 1st before the ball had even left the bat. 1st and 3rd Japan, as Matsunaka drops a single in front of Urrutia in right. Gonzales is lifted after pitching 3.1 innings of unspectacular baseball, but he kept Japan off the board. What happens now as Yadier Pedroso comes in to face the rest of the Japanese lineup? This is literally the game hanging in the balance. Hesitation at third costs the Cubans a run and an out. 5-1 Japan, and still no one out. To throw home, or not to throw…..He who hesitates is lost. A bunt, a pitching change, and a sac fly later and it’s 6-1, Japan. I hereby proclaim this game over.

Bottom 5th: Why on Earth would you take Matsuzaka out of the game this early? Watanabe is a good player, but Matsuzaka was bringing this thing home in dominating fashion. Will Oh live to regret this choice?

Top 6th: Umpire Bob Davidson blows a call at first, calling Munenori Kawasaki out at first although he was clearly safe.

Bottom 6th: Watanabe starts to falter. An error by Kawasaki puts Gourriel on base. Ariel Borrero singles. Frederich Cepeda doubles to score Gurriero 6-2 Japan. Osmani Urrutia singles to score Borrero, and we have a game. 6-3 Japan. What did Oh do? 1st and 3rd and only one out for Cuban MVP Yoandy Garlobo...a homer ties the game...and he grounds into a double play. It's a game now. No Matsuzaka makes it interesting.

Top 7th: Adiel Palma looks sharp and the momentum has swung. His 7th inning is the 1st sharp frame thrown by Cuba and Japan goes down 1-2-3.

Bottom 7th: Kawasaki commits an error at short in his second consecutive inning to start things off. Pressure is on, and the calming influence of a dominating pitcher is now missing. He bobbles the very next ball but turns the double play. Watanabe follows up the nice DP with yet another error, dropping the ball as he tries to beat Paret to the bag. It's getting ugly. No harm, no foul as Cuba goes meekly into the night in the 7th.

Bottom 8th: Another close play at first and Davidson calls Gurriero safe on a legged out single past the pitcher. The announcers are beside themselves. Otsuka up in the pen. After getting Borrero to fly out, Frederich Cepeda steps in and absolutely blasts a 2 run shot into the left field stands off Soichi Fujita, 6-5 Japan. Otuska comes into the game. Inning over.

Top 9th: Ichiro seals the game with a 9th inning RBI, Japan 7-5. That oughtta do it. The play at the plate is close and replays show he may have been out. More umpire controversy. No controversy as Fukudome singles to drive in 2 more, putting Japan up for good, 9-5. Make it 10-5, on another bases juiced sac fly.

Bottom 9th: Cuba scratches out a run, but Otsuka is too much and strikes out an overly aggressive Gourriel to end it.

There you have it. Japan is World Champion. For a long time, the game only felt competitive for one instant, when Paret blasted his home run off Matsuzaka in the 1st to give Cuba the look of the prize fighters that their country has been so famous for over the decades. Japan dominated terrible Cuban pitching until Oh's decision to relieve his ace after only 4 innings pitched breathed new life into the game and Cuba rallied.

Matsuzaka didn’t need to run support, as he looked every bit the #1 starter he is, and could be for a lucky Major League team. (wink, wink...interlocking NY) The bullpen for Japan was the achilles, and could have really made Oh a huge goat for the rest of his life.

We learned a few things in the WBC. The world is full of great ballplayers. There are a lot of countries which love the sport as much as we do. We need to pay more attention to what’s happening in baseball around the world if we claim to really love the game. I, for my part, will do my best to blog about baseball in Japan, Korea, and Cuba in addition to writing about the Yankees and Major League baseball.

We learned that the combination of Uehara and Matsuzaka makes any Japanese national team a formidable power that can stand up to any team in the world. These guys went a combined 5-0 with a 1.50 ERA, only 3 walks and 26 strikeouts in 30 innings, and a combined .93 WHIP. Matsuzaka has been named the WBC's Most Valuable Player in addition to Ichiro and catcher Satozaki on the "Best 9" team. The US features Jeter at short, and Ken Griffey, Jr. in the outfield. Korea's Lee Seung Yeop and Lee Jong Beom are on the team in addition to Cuba's Gourriel. One post-script note: I just watched Matsuzaka's MVP interview with Japanese television and they asked him about the trophy. He said, "Hontoni Americapoi.", which means it's really American-style, and proceeded to show everyone how the glass piece on top had already broken off. HA!

I wonder if Oh Sadaharu will ever get the respect he deserves and find himself inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I wonder if we will see the birth of a real World Series, starting with Japan League champs against MLB champs. Japan wants it already. Can the Yankees or anyone else claim to be “World Champions” if they don’t take on the champions from the WBC home country?

The WBC has ended, but baseball feels like it is only just beginning as we’ve seen the birth of a new international love for the sport and a new context by which all of us will understand the events that unfold day by day on diamonds from Seoul to Santiago, and from New York to Tokyo.

Viva al beisbol! Yakyu banzai! Long live the game!


Marie said...

OMG. I was sooooo stressed in the middle there. My boyfriend was absolutely laughing at me. When the game was 6/5 he kept saying, "Don't worry, they are going to win." And I kept saying, "No. They have to score more runs. If my Mom were the coach, that's what she would be telling them to do." And they did. Did you see the moment where the umpire got mad at the Japanese team for putting their feet out too far onto the dirt? That was very funny. Anyway, it was a great game, and I am so glad that Japan won. So interesting to see different styles of play. I am now totally emotionally exhausted and will go to sleep for a million years.

Mike Plugh said...

It was great and while I thought it was boring at the start when Cuba was imploding, it turned out to be interesting thanks to Oh's weird choice to take out the best young pitcher in the world.

Glad you stopped by to post Marie.

Matchosan said...

Great game and nice play by play. By you, not the ESPN boobs Joe & John. They were Pro Commie all the way.

Daisuke deserved the MVP, but it would have been nice to see a Co-MVP.

Hows the land of the rising sun taking its new crown?

Mike Plugh said...

I heard ESPN didn't air the game's first 20 minutes because there was an NIT basketball game in overtime??!! Idiots.

Thanks for the compliment. It's really just a collection of my scattered thoughts as I watched the game. I tried to simply scratch out what I was thinking at the time and do a little minor editing later. I was happy to have the post up about 5-10 minutes after the close of the game.

I've since gone back and added a few up to date photos that were released later.

Matsuzaka deserved MVP as much as anyone. It's hard to say who it should go to, but I would have doubled it up between Daisuke and Uehara.

dan said...

Lovely post, Mike, and here too:

"We learned a few things in the WBC. The world is full of great ballplayers. There are a lot of countries which love the sport as much as we do. We need to pay more attention to what’s happening in baseball around the world if we claim to really love the game. ."

Mike Plugh said...

Thanks Dan.

It's true of every sport to some degree, as basketball has learned in recent years. The Euroleague is turning out wonderful players that contribute to their teams in the NBA a great deal. The best players generally still hail from the US, but the progress made by players from all corners of the globe lead us to imagine that one day in the near future a foreign born player will be considered the best.

For baseball, we may be beyond that. We know that Dominicans like Vlad Guerrero and Miguel Tejada challenge for MVP honors season in and season out. We see the Latin contribution to the sport easily now. It wasn't always that way and many Latin players, like African-Americans, were denied the chance to play on level ground.

The Asian athlete has faced a different discrimination. It was long believed by many people in mainstream circles of American society that the Asian athlete was too small, weak, or psychologically ill-suited to compete at the highest level of professional sports. That notion has always been ridiculous and it's only in recent years that stereotypes have been broken down. Certain things about Asian athletes persist in those mainstream circles, but they are dying fast as teammates and fans get a closer look inside the cultures and lives of these individuals breaking the borders of sport.

I was fortunate to have Japanese and Korean teammates in high school and saw firsthand the level of skill and dedication that they possessed. For many Americans, in particular, lack of first person experience with people from Asia or of Asian descent fosters the old stereotypes and pioneers like Ichiro and Yao Ming are required to change the common perceptions that persist without them.

Anonymous said...

mikeplugh, great blog. As you know I share your enthusiasm for the WBC. I don't think that the U.S. baseball community can ever down grade the quality of baseball played internationally ever again. It is time to really show respect to the Asian and Latino players who are extremely talented and play this game really well.

Anonymous said...

mikeplugh, the post above is from me, Simone from Bronx Banter. I didn't realize that it was post as Anonymous. I register another time.

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