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Ichiro ends slump, Japan routs S. Korea

by Jason Coskrey

Ichiro Suzuki called Japan’s second loss to South Korea in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, “the most humiliating day of my baseball career.”

Fittingly it was Ichiro who set the pace on what may go down as one of his best games.

Ichiro broke out of a prolonged slump and Shuichi Murata hit his second home run of the 2009 World Baseball Classic as Japan blasted South Korea 14-2 on Saturday night in front of 45,640 fans at Tokyo Dome. The game was stopped after the seventh due to the WBC mercy rule.

“Our biggest goal is winning,” Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said. “The target is winning, and like I said the day before yesterday, after you win the first game the second game is the most important game. Since we won the first game, this was a very big game for us.”

With the win, Japan advances to the WBC’s second round in San Diego.

Ichiro led off the game with a single, to break an almost two-week slump and send the Japanese fans into a frenzy. The Seattle Mariners star added a bunt single in the second before finishing the game 3-for-5 with a stolen base and three runs scored.

“Ichiro’s leadoff single was huge for us,” Hara said. “He’s such a good hitter but he had been hitless recently. But tonight was such a important game for us and he got big hits.”

The matchup between Japan and South Korea, the winners of the last two major international competitions (the 2006 WBC and 2008 Beijing Olympics, respectively), fizzled early after Murata hit a three-run homer in the second to make the score 8-2, putting the game out of reach.

The home run off South Korean ace Kim Kwang Hyun ended a 10-pitch at-bat and was Murata’s second multi-run job of the tournament. The two-time defending Central League home run champion had a two-run shot against China on Thursday.

“Because I was able to keep fouling off sliders, he might have run out of pitches,” Murata said.

“I was caught off-balance again,” he added, comparing the homer to his blast against China.

The game put to rest any doubt about Japan’s offense, which looked sluggish in a 4-0 win over China in the WBC opener. Japan’s 13 runs came on 14 hits, and seven of the nine Japanese batters recorded a hit.

Hiroyuki Nakajima also had a big night, finishing 3-for-4 with a pair of RBIs and Norichika Aoki continued his strong play by driving in three runs.

“Today every single player played his own game and was able to hit using his own techniques and very good timing,” Hara said. “So they played very well today.”

Japan starter Daisuke Matsuzaka gave up a pair of runs in a shaky first inning but still picked up the win. The Boston Red Sox star threw four innings, walking two and striking out one.

“In the first inning I got into trouble because I couldn’t control my breaking balls,” Matsuzaka said. “I think I was able to adjust well while the fielders helped me. I am grateful to them.”

Kim Kwang Hyun gave up three consecutive singles to start the game and things only got worse. The SK Wyverns star, who had not lost to a Japanese team since 2005, was charged with eight runs in 1 1/3 innings.

“They played baseball with their Samurai spirits,” Japanese baseball legend Shigeo Nagashima said. “The three consecutive hits in the first inning broke down the Korean pitcher’s rhythm. Especially Ichiro’s hit had a tremendous effect on him.”

South Korea had beaten Japan in their last meeting, in the Beijing Olympics, but the defending WBC champions came out swinging in front of a raucous home crowd.

“He is a 20-year-old pitcher,” South Korea manager Kim In Sik said. “He’s young and doesn’t have experience in the Olympics or WBC. So he was too nervous.”

Ichiro got things started with a single into right field and Hiroyuki Nakajima followed with a liner up the middle. Aoki recorded Japan’s third consecutive hit with a single up the middle which drove in Ichiro.

Kim Kwang Hyun regained his focus and struck out the next two batters, bringing Seiichi Uchikawa to the plate. The reigning Central League batting champion made the most of the first WBC at-bat with a two-RBI single down the third-base line.

Kim Tae Kyun responded for South Korea in the bottom half. Ahead in the count 3-0 the Hanwha Eagles slugger struck the Kirin Beer advertisement above the left-field seats with a two-run shot that made the score 3-2.

Japan loaded the bases with none out to start the second and went ahead 4-2 when Nakajima drew a walk. Aoki grounded into a fielder’s choice, allowing the fifth run to score. Japan then went ahead 8-2 on Murata’s homer.