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Japan dumps U.S. in semis

Final rematch with South Korea awaits after five-run fourth inning

by Jason Coskrey

LOS ANGELES — Tatsunori Hara and Samurai Japan wanted to beat the United States at its own game almost as much as they wanted to defend the World Baseball Classic title.

Now they’ll get a chance to do both.

Japan took control of their semifinal showdown with a five-run fourth inning and Daisuke Matsuzaka held the Americans at bay after a rough beginning to lead Japan into the World Baseball Classic final with a 9-4 win over the U.S. on Sunday in Los Angeles.

“It’s significant for me to play against the United States,” Hara said. “It’s where baseball was born and I really respect American baseball. So the fact that I was able to compete against the American team was wonderful.

“The fact that we won today is something that, even for the Japanese baseball world, will go down in history.”

Japan will meet South Korea in the final on Monday. The two Asian rivals will be meeting for the fifth time in the 2009 WBC after splitting their past four games.

Bong Jung Keun, who’s beaten Japan twice in the WBC, will get the start for South Korea. Japan will send Hisashi Iwakuma to the mound.

“I’ll just do what I do,” Iwakuma said. “It’s different from a regular game because it’s a final. But if I can pitch my game, it will be OK. You guys put me on the spot, but it’s the last game and I (want) to enjoy it.”

“That we were able to come to this stage together, gives me a feeling of tremendous respect for the Koreans,” Hara said.

Major leaguers Kenji Johjima and Akinori Iwamura combined to drive in three runs for Japan, playing a big part in the victory over the Americans. Johjima finished 1-for-1 with a pair of RBIs, while the highlight of Iwamura’s night was an RBI triple in the fourth.

“In terms of playing against the Americans, Johjima and the other major leaguers play on the Japanese team, and the fact that they were there, I believe, did play a major role in the win,” Hara said.

Ichiro Suzuki finished 1-for-5 with an RBI in the contest, which drew the second-largest crowd in WBC history.

The WBC also set a new total attendance record of 746,562 with one game left to play. The 2006 tournament had a total attendance of 737,112.

Matsuzaka gave up a home run to Brian Roberts, the first batter of the game, but settled down as the contest wore on. Matsuzaka allowed two runs on five hits, struck out four and walked three over 4 2/3 innings to notch the win.

“He was able to keep it to two runs even though his condition wasn’t as good as the last time,” Johjima said, referring to Matsuzaka’s last start against Cuba on March 15.

“The fact that after the two runs he was able to strike out the next batter, that’s why he’s called an ace.”

Matsuzaka improved to 3-0 in this year’s tournament and is 6-0 all-time in the WBC.

“Daisuke was Daisuke,” U.S. designated hitter Jimmy Rollins said. “A lot of pitches and you find a way to squeak out a win.”

Rollins finished 4-for-4 with a triple and a walk to lead the U.S. First baseman Mark DeRosa was 1-for-4 with a pair of RBIs in the losing effort.

“They just play winning baseball,” Rollins said of the Japanese. “They do things right.”

U.S. starter Roy Oswalt was solid on the mound before giving up a big inning in the fourth. Oswalt took the loss after giving up six runs, four earned, on six hits in 3 2/3 innings.

The Americans looked as if they were in store for a big night when Roberts led off the game with a homer to deep center.

Japan put runners on the corners against Oswalt in the third and tied the score on a run-scoring sacrifice fly by Johjima.

A David Wright double in the next inning put the Americans back on top 2-1.

Atsunori Inaba and Michihiro Ogasawara produced back-to-back singles to get things started for Japan in the fourth. An error by Roberts on a grounder by the next batter, Kosuke Fukudome, brought Inaba home from second to tie the score.

Johjima’s second sacrifice fly of the game drove in a run later in the inning and Iwamura’s RBI triple made the score 4-2. Munenori Kawasaki lined an RBI single into right and Hiroyuki Nakajima capped the big inning with an RBI double.

Mark DeRosa lined a two-run double into left field in the eighth as the U.S cut the lead to 6-4.

An error by U.S. shortstop Derek Jeter allowed a run to score in the bottom of the inning and Ichiro lined a ball into right field to drive in another run. Nakajima added an RBI double to make the score 9-4.

Yu Darvish closed out the game in the top of the ninth, allowing a hit and striking out two.

“I like Darvish,” said Rollins, who had a single against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham ace. “He throws the ball at 96 (mph, or 154 kph), has a cutter, slider and he’s not afraid to pound the zone.”