Ichiro Suzuki’s two-run single up the middle in the 10th inning yesterday gave Japan a thrilling 5-3 victory over South Korea and a second consecutive title in the World Baseball Classic.
The Japanese Samurai defended their crown from the inaugural 2006 Classic by outlasting the reigning Olympic champions in the title game, their third victory in five meetings with their Asian arch-rivals in this year’s Classic.
Suzuki, who went 4-for-6 with a double, was mired in a slump early in the tournament but came though when it mattered most.
“I believe that hit is something I will never forget,” Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said. “It’s an image that will be imprinted in my mind forever.”
Lee Bum-ho’s run-scoring single with two out in the ninth inning equalized for South Korea to force extra innings, but Japan struck for two runs in the 10th thanks to Suzuki, a Major League Baseball star with the Seattle Mariners.
“With the pressure and expectations, I thought it was impossible to improve our performance,” Suzuki said. “There was more pain and hurt than I usually feel this time. We knew it would be tough. This is a special triumph.”
Japan pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka won his second consecutive Classic Most Valuable Player award, the Boston Red Sox ace having gone 3-0 for the second Classic in a row and won a semi-final over the US a day earlier.
“The biggest difference is that I was a champion from last time,” Matsuzaka said. “There were young players I wanted to lead by example rather than words. You can’t just throw good pitches. You have to get a win no matter what.”
A Classic-record crowd of 54,846 jammed Dodger Stadium for the title game, with loud flag-waving supporters of both sides creating an electric atmosphere and being rewarded with an epic battle.
In the 10th, Seiichi Uchikawa opened with a single, advanced on a sacrifice bunt by Atsunori Inaba and took third on a single by Akinori Iwamura, who took second on defensive indifference after pinch-hitter Munenori Kawasaki flew out.
That set the stage for Suzuki’s blast up the middle off Korean relief pitcher Lim Chang-yong.
“I thought about a lot of things. I wish I could’ve been in a state of zen,” Suzuki said. “I kept thinking about all the things I shouldn’t think about.
“Usually when I think of those things, I can’t hit. But this time I was able to get a hit so maybe I surpassed something in myself,” he said.
Nippon Ham Fighters star right-hander Yu Darvish, who could not hold a one-run lead in the ninth, again tried to finish off South Korea in the 10th.
After an opening walk to Lee Dae-ho, he struck out Choi Jeong, induced a fly out by Lee Yong-kyu and struck out Jeong Keun-woo to secure the title, raising his arms in the air to celebrate before being mobbed by teammates.
“We became number one in the world by winning last time,” Hara said. “Now being able to return for victory number two, I feel great happiness.”
The final was the fifth meeting of the Classic between the teams, with Japan winning 14-2 in round one at Tokyo and 6-2 in round two in San Diego while the Koreans won 1-0 at Tokyo and 4-1 in San Diego, Bong taking both wins.
“It was really sad this happened,” South Korea manager Kim In-sik said. “Although we did not win, we did well. We fought to the end. We gave our best. We have no regrets. We gave our greatest glory.”