Yokohama – Japan manager Atsunori Inaba doesn’t officially get a medal from the Tokyo Games, but one hung around his neck anyway as Japan celebrated its first Olympic baseball gold.
Second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi had slipped his own medal around Inaba’s neck during Japan’s celebrations after a 2-0 victory over the United States in the gold medal game on Saturday at Yokohama Stadium.
“I wanted him to wear mine if I was able to give it to him since the coaches don’t have medals,” Kikuchi said during a news conference on Sunday.
Inaba did what no Japan manager before him has done during these Games. For all of Japan’s international success, Olympic gold had always been just out of the reach of one of the world’s foremost baseball-playing nations.
Until Saturday night, when the Japanese beat the Americans for the second time in as many games to clinch the Olympic title.
“We had two games against them that either team could have won but we managed to win both times,” Inaba said. “I think that’s because of the power and the passion of the players on the Japanese team.”
Inaba promoted communication and a sense of unity in the clubhouse just as much as he pushed Japan to play with speed and power on the field.
Instead of throwing a bunch of star players on the field, Inaba spent time traveling to NPB games and looking for players who could help him win. He didn’t name a captain for the squad, because it was a responsibility everyone would share. The key to gold for this Japan team was not a group of stars, it was one team.
“I think we created the type of team where the young players can speak out and lift their voices and get everyone excited,” Inaba said. “Also we have veterans like (Hayato) Sakamoto, (Masahiro) Tanaka, Kikuchi, Gita (Yuki Yanagita) and (Yudai) Ono.
“I think things work best when the veterans and the young players can work together and we created that kind of team.”
Japan won 27 gold medals at the Tokyo Games and each was special in its own way. This one, though, was different. Few nations, if any, around the world have shown the passion for the sport Japan has throughout the years.
Japan took an American game and shaped and molded it until it became something that in many ways is uniquely Japanese. The nation has proudly taken its brand of baseball abroad and largely succeeded — winning the World Baseball Classic twice and the Premier12 among other titles.
Now the nation has finally tasted success at the Olympics Games.
“I think this is the result of the unity of the Samurai Japan players, coaches and staff,” Tanaka said.
While Japan’s win surely exorcised some of the demons of the past — including the team’s famous fall to fourth place at the Beijing Games in 2008 — Inaba also hopes it lays the foundation for the future at a time when fewer children are playing baseball.
“I wanted to show the strength of Japanese baseball to the world, and I hope that winning the gold medal will increase the number of children and adults who play baseball,” Inaba said.
Japan won every game it played during the Olympic baseball tournament. The first game required a ninth-inning rally and a sayonara single by Hayato Sakamoto and a walk off hit by Takuya Kai against the U.S. sent the team into the semifinals against South Korea.
The final was tight throughout. Munetaka Murakami put the first run on the board with a home run in the third inning and Japan added an insurance run in the eighth.
Masato Morishita got the start on the mound and he and four relievers shut out the Americans.
“They pitched a hell of a game,” U.S. infielder Todd Fraizer said. “They got first pitch strikes. It just wasn’t our day at the plate. No other way around it. No excuses. We did not have many opportunities with men in scoring position with less than two outs. Hard to win games that way.”
The final ended with Kikuchi fielding Jack Lopez’s worm-killing ground ball at second and flipping to Hayato Sakamoto who stepped in the bag to record the out on a fielder’s choice.
“I didn’t expect the ball to come to me,” Kikuchi said during a news conference on Sunday. “I was going to go step on second base, but I saw Hayato there, smiling, so I flipped it to him.”
The game closed the book on a chapter of Japanese baseball that ended with a gold medal at an Olympics held on home soil. One that began with the hiring of a first-time manager in 2017.
With his job done, Inaba said he will step down from his post and pass the baton, and the next generation of Samurai Japan players, to someone else.
“I’m going to do my best to continue to contribute to baseball,” Inaba said.
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