Yokohama – The wait is over for Japan.
A nation where baseball is one of the national pastimes finally has its Olympic gold medal in the sport.
Munetaka Murakami hit a solo home run in the third inning and starter Masato Morishita and four relievers made the lead hold up as Japan claimed a long-awaited title with a 2-0 win over the United States in the Tokyo Olympic baseball final at Yokohama Stadium on Saturday.
“Morishita was able to hold down the powerful American lineup by pitching carefully and taking it one batter at a time,” manager Atsunori Inaba said. “Murakami hit a home run and we scored first and we were able to get into a good flow.
“Our relievers too. We had various pitchers throw and had a strong feeling they would connect and hold down the batters one by one. Everyone’s efforts combined to help us hold them to zero runs.”
Japan, the homeland of superstars like Shohei Ohtani and Yu Darvish, had coveted gold in baseball since the sport was added to the Olympic program in 1992. The nation’s previous best finish during the Olympics had been a silver medal at the Atlanta Games in 1996.
“We were able to win today and I’m just so happy,” Murakami said.
The celebration began when U.S. center fielder Jack Lopez hit a bouncing ball toward second. Ryosuke Kikuchi calmly let it bounce into his glove and flipped it to Hayato Sakamoto, who touched second base as the weight of five Olympic tournaments without a gold medal was suddenly lifted.
Japan had to go through the Americans twice to get to the gold, winning their first matchup on a sayonara single by Takuya Kai in extra innings before another hard-fought win on Saturday.
“I mean, we expected them to be really good, they’re the best of the best here in their country,” U.S. third baseman Todd Fraizer said. “We didn’t expect anything different (from the first game), we knew they would come at us and they got us today.”
The Japanese players gave Inaba a traditional doage victory toss, flinging him skyward five times. The 49-year-old skipper came down with tears in his eyes after completing the task he was hired for in 2017. The Japanese players put the gold medals around each other’s necks and exchanged forearm bumps on the podium as baseball legend Sadaharu Oh, who managed Japan to the inaugural World Baseball Classic title in 2006, watched.
Inaba was a player at the 2008 Beijing Games, where Japan suffered one its lowest Olympic moments with a fourth-place finish despite a team that included Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish, among others.
Kikuchi put the gold medal around Inaba’s neck on Saturday and the manager instantly felt the weight of the accomplishment.
“I received the gold medal from Kikuchi and I thought it was such an amazing color and really felt that I had gotten a gold medal,” Inaba said.
Inaba used a youth movement on the mound to carry Japan to a gold medal 13 years after the collapse in Beijing.
One of those young arms was Morishita, who is only 23 and still in the middle of his second season with the Hiroshima Carp. Ryoji Kuribayashi, 25, who handled the closing duties on Saturday, is a rookie with the Carp. Hiromi Ito, a 23-year-old rookie for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, pitched out of the bullpen.
Morishita got the win in the final and Kuribayashi picked up the save.
Japan came into the Olympics on home soil as the favorite and with the knowledge baseball would be dropped from the Olympic program for the 2024 Games in Paris.
Even with the stakes at astronomical levels, Inaba gave the ball to Morishita. Following Japan’s victory over Mexico, where Morishita got the win in his top-team debut, Inaba said he picked players based on who could help him win — irregardless of experience. He said he had trust in all his players and put that trust in Morishita for the final.
Morishita got the job done. He threw a variety of pitches at the Americans and did not allow a lot of hard contact and only three hits. He struck out five, gave up three hits and hit a batter.
“I was able to pitch well from the first inning,” Morishita said. “When Murakami hit his home run and gave us a run, I just wanted to do whatever I could to protect the lead.”
With U.S. starter Nick Martinez, who pitches in Japan for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, also pitching well, the game began to look like a pitchers’ duel early.
Murakami made his presence felt in the third, driving a 2-2 changeup over the wall in center to give Japan a 1-0 lead.
Martinez said he and catcher Mark Kolozsvary were on the same page during that at-bat and called Murakami’s homer, “a good piece of hitting.”
“He hit my best pitch out, you really can’t do much about it,” Martinez said.
Japan looked poised to add to its advantage after Masataka Yoshida and Seiya Suzuki hit one-out singles in the fourth and Hideto Asamura drew a walk to load the bases.
The Japanese were not able to capitalize on the chance, however. The U.S. got an out at home when Yuki Yanagita hit into a fielder’s choice to third and Martinez ended the inning by striking out Kikuchi and letting out a big yell.
Morishita exited after the fifth, making way for the Japan bullpen.
Kodai Senga worked around a walk and a hit batter to preserve the one-run lead in the sixth. Ito kept the Americans off the board in the seventh, despite allowing a one-out double against Nick Allen. Ito gave up a hit against Tyler Austin, playing in his home park, to start the eighth and was relieved by Suguru Iwazaki, who got three quick outs.
Yoshida stepped to the plate with Tetsuto Yamada on second in the bottom of the eighth and hit a single into center. Yamada began to round third but seemed to think twice and headed back to the bag. He broke for home after an errant throw by center fielder Jack Lopez and slid in ahead of the tag to give Japan a 2-0 lead on a call that was upheld by a replay review.
Kuribayashi then closed out the game in the ninth.
Martinez, who struck out seven in six innings of one-run ball and worked out of a one-out bases-loaded jam in the fourth, was charged with the loss.
The Dominican Republic defeated South Korea 10-6 to claim the bronze medal earlier Saturday. The Dominicans scored four runs in the top of the first but eventually lost the lead and entered the eighth trailing 6-5.
They broke the game open with a five-run eighth against former NPB reliever Oh Seung-hwan, who only managed to record one out before being taken out of the game.
“We feel remorse over this result, and at the same time we feel very sorry for our fans,” Oh said. “However, this game was an experience that we can learn from and develop from and become a better team and go further next time.”
Juan Francisco put his team ahead for good with a tiebreaking two-run double that made the score 8-6 in the eighth. Francisco finished with a pair of hits and three RBIs.
This will be the final Olympics baseball tournament for a while. The sport is not on the program for the Paris Games in 2024, though it could return in Los Angeles in 2028.
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