Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Samurai night fever

March 9, 2009

Sports rivalries are bred by proximity, culture and history, and few match ups in Asia have more baggage or bragging rights at stake than baseball games between Japan and South Korea, the respective World Baseball Classic and Olympic titleholders.

Both crowns were sources of national pride, but Japan’s came in 2006 after losing twice to Korea before a semifinal victory over the Seoul side, which wasn’t enthused that a team it had beaten more than once could become  tournament champions.

The 2008 Beijing Games saw Tokyo and Seoul send their top non-MLB squads, but Japan returned medal-less and humbled, including a loss to Korea, whose gold made it the 2009 WBC regional favourite.

In the first rematch Saturday, Samurai Japan won 14-2, a laugher for everyone but the Koreans and pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who displayed the erratic control bedeviling his Red Sox career so far. The “called game” victory ensured the hosts would advance to the second round, while setting up a game against the stunned Koreans Monday, who blistered the Chinese in their next outing.

BASEBALL-WORLD/JAPAN

But pitching, a by-product of near year-round Asian training and why regional teams have fared so well in the early season tournament, was the story in Game Two, with Japan’s Hisashi Iwakuma allowing only two hits but leaving down 1-0.

Ichiro Suzuki woke up the slumbering Samurai with a late single, but Japan immediately followed with a “kanri yakyu” (businessman baseball) sacrifice bunt, even with one out. Japanese media in the Tokyo Dome nodded in acknowledgement, while the foreign press saw this as certain futility, essentially killing the comeback opportunity.

Sometimes, inscrutable moves pay off. Other times, they don’t and Korea wins the game, as well as the region’s top seed in the WBC’s next round.

It remains to be seen if the Tigers will meet again in WBC later rounds, but a fitting coda would be one more game – if not settling a very old rivalry, at least providing another chapter as to the home of Asia’s — and arguably — the world’s best.

Photo credit: Hisashi Iwakuma by REUTERS/Toru Hanai

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