Baseball may have been invented in the United States, but it’s being perfected in Japan.
Over the years, as Major League Baseball teams spiraled into a dependence on hitting more home runs than their opponents, Japanese baseball stayed true to its roots by teaching the fundamentals of the game.
Placed side by side on the international stage at the World Baseball Classic, the power of the Western nations was no match for Japan’s game of stellar pitching, solid defense, singles and smart base-running.
By staying true to its style of play, Japan was able to erase the sting of an unceremonious fourth-place finish at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with a dominating run in the WBC.
Japan took advantage of its opponents’ mistakes and, with the exception of the first game against Cuba, showed great poise on the basepaths.
Japan led the WBC in hits (92) and stolen bases (11), manufacturing runs rather than driving them in with power hitting.
Only South Korea, which plays a similar style, seriously challenged Japan during the WBC.
“They were fundamentally sound,” U.S. shortstop Jimmy Rollins said after his team’s loss to Japan in the semifinals. “They took advantage of mistakes, didn’t worry about trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark. And when you put the ball in play, you can find some holes. They definitely did that.”
Japanese baseball is famous for its boot camp-esque training regimens and its polish showed on the mound, at the plate and in the field.
“When I was in Japan, spring training started Jan. 1,” said U.S. manager Davey Johnson, a former Yomiuri Giants player. “So I know that they do that. It’s takusan renshu, a lot of practice.
“And that’s great. I think a lot of practice is good. It does give them a head start when you play ’em in early March.”
The Japanese outscored their opponents 50-16, with 12 of the runs they allowed coming against South Korea. Japan did it largely without the longball, hitting just four home runs in its nine games.
Instead of relying on power, Japan settled for getting on base and making good things happen as result of smart base-running. The team finished the WBC with 74 singles, which accounted for 80.4 percent of its total hits.
What Japan lacked in power it more than made up for on the mound.
Behind the three-headed monster of starting pitchers Yu Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hisashi Iwakuma, Japan rode the best pitching staff in the tournament to a second consecutive WBC title.
Japanese pitchers dominated the opposition, yielding 16 runs, 15 earned, in their nine games, while posting a team ERA of 1.71.
Matsuzaka was named the tournament MVP, but it was Iwakuma who most epitomized Japan’s pitching might.
The reigning Pacific League MVP, threw a tournament-high 20 innings, finishing with a 1.35 ERA.
Pitching and defense are the cornerstones of the Japanese game, but both seemed to be lacking under Senichi Hoshino during the Beijing Olympics.
In the WBC, manager Tatsunori Hara kept everyone on the same page long enough for the group to jell into an almost machine-like efficiency at times on the mound and in the field.
The results were a second straight WBC title. Hara and Japan went to the United States to win the title and accomplished their mission.
Even sweeter, they did it their way.