Four years ago, the Samurai Japan bullpen fell apart in a loss against South Korea in the Premier12 semifinals at Tokyo Dome.
This time, with the title hanging in the balance, Japan’s relievers got to taste both sweet revenge and the championship.
Tetsuto Yamada gave Japan the lead with a three-run home run in the second inning and six relievers held the Koreans to three hits over eight innings in a 5-3 win in the Premier12 final on Sunday night at the Big Egg. The Japanese went 7-1 on their way to winning the tournament.
“It’s been two years since I was hired as the Japan national team manager and we wanted to win the Premier12 and also win next year’s Olympics,” Japan manager Atsunori Inaba said. “All the players have a strong desire to become the best in the world, so this is really thanks to all of the players.”
Inaba came out of the dugout in tears after closer Yasuaki Yamasaki struck out Yang Eui-ji for the final out as the crowd exploded. The players gathered together and tossed Inaba into the air eight times in celebration on the mound.
“Every game was very challenging, but the players persevered through it all and I think that led to this result,” Inaba said.
Seiya Suzuki was named MVP of the Premier12. The Hiroshima Carp outfielder hit .444 with three home runs and 13 RBIs for Japan. He had at least one hit in all eight games.
“Of course I’m happy, but our goal was to win as a team,” Suzuki said. “So I’m really happy we were able to do that.”
Nobuhiro Matsuda accepted the trophy and led the crowd in a shout of “Atsuo (as is his custom)” during the postgame ceremony.
The chance to win the bigger prize, Olympic gold, won’t come until 2020, but that didn’t dampen the mood at Tokyo Dome.
Japanese fans sang, cheered and jumped their way through all nine innings, draping the game in a festival-like atmosphere. It might not have been the Olympics, but it was title Japan had never won and the fans gave it due reverence.
It was also a final against Korea, a rival who has tripped up the Japanese more than once in games like these, including four years ago in this tournament.
Japan fell in an early 3-0 hole after a two-run home run by South Korea’s Kim Ha-seong and a solo shot by Kim Hyun-soo, who spent time with the Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies, in the first inning against starter Shun Yamaguchi.
Suzuki pulled a run back for Japan with an RBI double in the bottom of the first.
Yamada then followed a two-out walk and a single with a three-run home run to give Japan a 4-3 lead.
Rei Takahashi, who earned the win in relief, led the procession of relievers with two scoreless innings. Kazuto Taguchi tossed two innings and Kota Nakagawa, Hiroshi Kaino, Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Yamasaki, credited with the save, each threw one inning. They limited South Korea to three hits and a walk in eight combined innings.
It was a complete turnaround from the three-run lead the Japan bullpen let slip away in the the 2015 semifinal between the two nations.
Hideto Asamura had two hits and drove in an insurance run for Japan in the seventh.
South Korea starter Yang Hyeon-jong was charged with the loss.
The tournament doubled as an Olympic qualifier, but both finalists had already secured spots. Japan is in as the host nation and South Korea earned a berth with a win on Friday.
Mexico also qualified out of the Premier12, with a win earlier Sunday, and Israel earned a berth through a different qualifier.
Lee Jung-hoo drew a walk to start the game for Korea, and Kim Ha-seong homered to left to give the Koreans a two-run lead after just two batters.
Yamaguchi retired the next two before left fielder Kim Hyun-soo sent a 3-1 fastball over the right-center wall.
Japan got on the board in the bottom half after Hayato Sakamoto drew a four-pitch walk and Suzuki drove him in with a double.
“The Korean team hit two quick home runs in the first inning and it was going to be difficult for us if it kept going that way” Suzuki said. “Also the opposing pitcher was very good. So I wanted to be aggressive. That mindset let to a very good result. Also, Hayato-san ran very well to be able to score.”
Tsubasa Aizawa drew a two-out walk to keep the second inning going and his Hiroshima Carp teammate Ryosuke Kikuchi followed with an infield single. Yamada got a good pitch to hit and drove it deep to left to put Japan ahead 4-3.
Sakamoto, who hit 40 home runs during the NPB season, nearly hit one to lead off the seventh but had to settle for a double off the wall. Asamura drove him in later in the inning, making the score 5-3 with an RBI single into right.