Japan beats S. Korea for final berth

by Stephen Ellsesser

SAN DIEGO — Team Japan absolutely had to beat South Korea.

News photo
Koji Uehara fires in a pitch during Team Japan’s World Baseball Classic semifinal semifinal clash against South Korea in San Diego.

Koji Uehara was absolutely unstoppable, and the Japanese turned tables on South Korea, avenging two World Baseball Classic losses with a 6-0 win in the semifinals Saturday night at Petco Park, riding Uehara’s dominance and unexpected heroics from WBC goat Kosuke Fukudome.

Uehara (2-0) struck out eight batters, allowing just three hits in seven innings, and Fukudome broke out of a 2-for-19 slump with a game-changing two-run home run, proving his worth on a day when the Chunichi Dragons outfielder finally became a starting lineup casualty.

Heading into the seventh in a scoreless tie, Team Japan (4-3) rallied around Nobuhiko Matsunaka’s leadoff double.

Matsunaka slid headfirst into second base, and after Hitoshi Tamura struck out, Fukudome came to the plate looking to re-create some of Matsunaka’s lightning.

His electric shot to right field landed 191 meters later, a rare home run in the San Diego Padres’ pitcher-friendly venue.

“I wasn’t really confident because I hadn’t been doing very well,” Fukudome said. “But when I saw Matsunaka, I just wanted to go out and swing at pitches so I could help my team.”

Japan manager Sadaharu Oh had decided that Fukudome would sit against South Korea (6-1) before the team worked out Friday, but he was encouraged enough by what he saw to give Fukudome a chance for redemption in the critical situation.

“He was swinging well yesterday and then again today, but I had already decided the lineup, so I didn’t really change my mind,” Oh said. “I had good confidence that I could use him anytime, and in that very inning, the Korean team sent side-armer Kim (Byung Hyun), and I thought Fukudome could be the hitter for that situation. I didn’t have any doubt about it.”

Kim, late of the Colorado Rockies, is best known for blowing consecutive saves in the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium, when he was the closer for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Kim retired only one batter, and after hitting Michihiro Ogasawara and giving up an RBI ground-rule double to Tomoya Satozaki, he came out. Kim was charged with three runs, but Jun Byung Doo (0-1), who gave up the double to Matsunaka to begin the seventh, was tagged with the loss.

By the time South Korea made it out of the seventh, Seo Jae Weong’s scoreless gem was for naught, and the Japanese had a 5-0 lead.

Satozaki came around on Shinya Miyamoto’s single, and Miyamoto added the final run of the inning thanks to back-to-back singles from Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Ichiro Suzuki, who was 3-for-4 from the No. 3 spot in the lineup.

Uehara knew what he had to do, and had been in control since the first inning, when he gave up a double and then a wild pitch to put a runner at third.

He struck out Yomiuri Giants teammate Lee Seung Yeop with the runner on third, beginning an impressive tear where he retired 19 of 20 batters, going into the seventh inning. The lone lapse was a fifth-inning single.

But when the seventh came around, Uehara stepped it up.

He gave up his third and final hit in the seventh but struck out the other three batters he faced in the frame, finishing with 86 pitches, nine shy of the WBC limit for the semifinals and finals. He threw 68 strikes among the total, an impressive efficiency rating.

“In the seventh, I struck out three batters,” Uehara said, reliving the dominant stretch. “My team had scored five runs earlier in the seventh, and I wanted it to work really well in that stretch.”

Uehara had no chance to try to stretch his amazing night any further when a 45-minute rain delay took over, but Yasuhiko Yabuta and Akinori Otsuka were just as lights-out in slamming the door for Team Japan in the eighth and ninth innings, once play resumed.

Japan added another run in the eighth, when Tamura hit his third WBC homer, a solo shot against Son Min Han.

The loss suspended South Korea’s magic undefeated run through the WBC.

Unlike previous rounds, it became single elimination once the semifinals started. There is no tomorrow for South Korea, but Japan still has one more game remaining, a showdown with Team Cuba.

“I believe this team is much stronger or will probably be the strongest team that Japan ever had against a Cuban team” Oh said. “One thing I can tell for sure is that we will show a great performance in Monday’s game against the Cuban team, and whether we win or lose, we will play the game with a lot of heart.”

Related story:
Cubans down Dominicans By STEPHEN ELLSESSER