South Korea manager Kim In-sik said he only had one card left to play. The veteran skipper had been itching to use a pinch hitter, and the top of the ninth inning, with his team down three runs against rival Japan, seemed to be as good of a time as any.
That player, Oh Jae-won, came up with a hit that helped ignite a rally and, in a bitter bit of irony, a man who was cheered by a number of Japanese fans less than a month ago was the one who struck the crushing blow in the end.
Japan Series MVP Lee Dae-ho hit a go-ahead two-run single as South Korea scored four runs in the top of the ninth to rally into the Premier 12 final with a 4-3 victory over Japan in front of a stunned crowd of 40,258 on Thursday night at Tokyo Dome.
“I’m very happy to be able to win,” said Lee (through a translator), who helped slug the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks to the Japan Series title last month. “My teammates had a strong will to win. We were determined to take advantage of this chance and I’m happy we were able to win.”
South Korea moves on to the final and will face the winner of Friday’s semifinal between Mexico and the United States.
“We will do our best to win,” the Korean manager said. “We won against Japan and sometimes in baseball a strong team loses to a weaker one.”
It was a bitter ending for Japan, which had been 5-0 in the tournament.
“We had to win this game and we lost it,” Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said. “It’s really too bad.”
The Koreans had been dominated for most of the night, mustering just one hit and striking out 11 times against Japanese starter Shohei Otani. They went down in order again in the eighth against reliever Takahiro Norimoto.
They managed to turn the tables in ninth while trailing 3-0.
Oh got things going with his single to right off Norimoto to start the frame and another pinch hitter, Son Ah-seop, singled up the middle. Jeong Keun-woo got South Korea on the board with an RBI double to left and Lee Yong-kyu was hit by a pitch, which loaded the bases.
That spelled the end of Norimoto’s night, but only the beginning of Japan’s problems.
Lefty Yuki Matsui was called into a bases-loaded situation and walked Kim Hyun-soo on five pitches to force in a run.
“I wasn’t nervous,” the 20-year-old Matsui said. “But they had their best left-handed hitter up and maybe I should’ve been more aggressive. I learned how difficult it was to pitch in a situation like that.”
Japan went to the bullpen again, bringing on Hirotoshi Masui to face Lee. Masui, who pitches for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, faced Lee four times during the NPB season and struck him out each time.
The Korean slugger got the best of this battle, lining a 2-1 forkball into left to score two runs.
“I felt like he was going to throw me forkballs and fastballs mostly,” Lee said.
The Korean players celebrated in front of their dugout after Lee’s hit and turned the party up a notch after the slugger returned to the dugout after being lifted for a pinch runner.
The Japanese players could only watch.
“We could have given up a run and at least wanted to get out of the inning with the score tied,” Masui said. “But I let them go ahead, and it’s on me.”
South Korea’s Lim Chang-min earned the win in relief.
Norimoto took the loss after being charged with all four runs in the ninth.
“All the pitches I threw were too hittable,” Norimoto said. “If I’d kept the ball down, I believe I would’ve had a better chance to get groundouts. That’s an area where I need to improve.
The bullpen meltdown spoiled a brilliant outing by Otani, who took a no-hitter into the seventh and struck out 11. He threw 85 pitches and allowed just one hit and hit a batter.
“Otani was reaching his limit so I had to change pitchers,” Kokubo said. “Otani got through the seventh and I decided to bring on Norimoto. After they put runners on base, I had to consider other options, but the plan was to finish the eighth and ninth innings with Norimoto.”
Japan now moves on to the third-place game on Saturday against the loser of Friday’s semifinal.
“That will be our final game of the year and we talked about ending the year with a win,” said outfielder Shogo Akiyama.
Ryosuke Hirata and Hayato Sakamoto each drove in runs for Japan in the losing effort. Hirata finished with a two-hit night, as did Akira Nakamura.
“We played a hard-fought contest,” Norimoto said. “In the end, somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. I certainly wanted to finish the game, but I just came up short.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.
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