Samurai Japan did just enough against rival South Korea during what amounted to an entertaining dress rehearsal for the Premier12 final.
Now the Japanese will head into the gold-medal game hoping practice makes perfect.
Japan scored six runs in the third inning then had to overcome several rallies by the Koreans in order to secure a 10-8 win in the final game of the Premier12 Super Round on Saturday night at Tokyo Dome.
“This was a really difficult game,” Japan manager Atsunori Inaba said. “The South Korean lineup really has a lot of good batters.”
The two sides will meet again Sunday night in the Premier12 final. Mexico and the United States will square off for third place, and a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, earlier Sunday.
“We’re going to fight just like we have in each game up to now,” Inaba said. “We’re going into the final tomorrow on this amazing stage and we don’t want have any regrets. We’re going to need everyone and we’re just going to fight as one.”
There wasn’t much on the line for either team Saturday night — except pride, as Japan improved to 6-9 against South Korea since the 2000 Olympics. Both were already locked into the final — Japan now will enter as the first-place team — and the Koreans clinched the Asia/Oceania Olympic berth on Friday.
That didn’t stop them from putting on a show in front of an enthusiastic crowd at the Big Egg.
Ryosuke Kikuchi and Tetsuto Yamada each drove in two runs for Japan while six other Japanese players finished with one RBI apiece.
Yoshihiro Maru, who plays his home games at Tokyo Dome with the Yomiuri Giants, was a near-constant presence on base for Japan, finishing 3-for-4 with a walk and an RBI.
“Our batters set the table for each other very well,” Inaba said. “We want to carry that into tomorrow’s game as well. Some of the players were able to draw walks and they were able to get it to the next batter.
“As for our pitchers, the Korean batters are very strong. So it’s really difficult to hold them down. But I think our pitchers were able to throw with a lot of grit and perseverance.”
Yudai Ono earned the win in relief for Japan and Kazuto Taguchi was credited with the save. Korean starter Lee Seung-ho took the loss.
Rising young star Kang Baek-ho was 2-for-4 with three RBIs for South Korea.
Kim Sang-su was 1-for-4 with a two-run double. South Korea finished with 12 hits to Japan’s 14.
“Because it was see-saw game, my plan was to just get three straight outs, and I was able to do that,” said Japan reliever Kan Otake, who worked a scoreless eighth. “My impression of the Korean batters is that they really have very strong swings.”
Japan broke open a 1-1 game in the third.
Seiya Suzuki and Hideto Asamura each singled in one run to make the score 3-1. Nobuhiro Matsuda drew a bases loaded walk to add a run onto the lead and Tsubasa Aizawa hit an RBI single.
Kikuchi hit into a fielder’s choice, on a great play by shortstop Kim Sang-su, to bring home another run. Matsuda then scored on Yamada’s sacrifice fly to left to make the score 7-1.
South Korea’s Park Byung-ho came to the plate with runners on the corners in the fourth and got the ball rolling with an RBI single to left. The Koreans got even closer on an RBI by Kang and a run-scoring double by Park Sei-hyok. Kim Sangsu brought in two more with a double to left-center as the Koreans cut a six-run deficit to one.
Ono loaded the bases on three walks before striking out Choi Jeong. He was then the benefactor of some picture-perfect defense. Seiya Suzuki ran down a fly ball hit to right by Kang and fired a strike to cutoff man Shuta Tonosaki, who turned and fired home to nail the runner at the plate.
Takuya Kai singled and went to second on a sacrifice bunt in the fifth. Yamada drove him in with a double to push Japan’s lead to two runs. Yamada later came home on a double by Maru to make it 9-6.
A replay review on a play at second kept South Korea at-bat in the top of the seventh. The Koreans took advantage as Kang stepped up with two runners on and hit a two-run single the cut the Japanese lead to 9-8.
Japan loaded the bases in the bottom of the seventh and went back up by two runs when Kensuke Kondo was hit in the foot.