Where EAST meets the Northwest
WORLD-CLASS BASEBALL. Norichika Aoki bats during the first
inning of a semifinal game against the United States held as part of the World
Baseball Classic, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
From The Asian Reporter, V27, #8 (April 17, 2017), pages 8 & 16.
Depleted squads from Japan & South Korea fall short at WBC
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
For Asian athletes, the World Baseball Classic (WBC) has fallen victim to its
own success. The Japanese and South Korean players who rose to international
prominence at the tournament are now too focused on their success in the U.S.,
which drained talent from their national teams. As a result, South Korea was
eliminated early from this yearís tournament while Japan lost a squeaker in the
semifinal against Team USA, the eventual champion.
Since its inception in 2006, the tournament has provided international
exposure for players in other professional leagues, most notably the Korean
Baseball Organization (KBO) and Japanís Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). As
those stars signed contracts with Major League Baseball (MLB) teams, however,
the demands of the MLB season have taken them out of the WBC tournament.
MLB players Shin Soo Choo, Hyun Soo Kim, and Jung Ho Kang had anchored South
Koreaís team in the past. However, Kim opted out this year to focus on improving
from a shaky rookie season, while the Texas Rangers held Choo out of the WBC due
to his injury history. Unable to secure a U.S. work visa due to his DUI
conviction in South Korea, Kang has bigger things than baseball on his mind.
For its part, Japan was without the aging Ichiro Suzuki, whose best years are
behind him, with journeyman Norichika Aoki as their sole MLB representative. And
the pitching staff was missing all its MLB talent, as Masahiro Tanaka, Kenta
Maeda, and Yu Darvish all opted out.
Because of an ankle injury, the team was also without the NPBís top talent,
2016 Pacific League MVP Shohei Ohtani. In four seasons, the 22-year-old Ohtani
has amassed a 39-13 record with a 2.49 ERA on the mound, logging more than a
strikeout per inning. On the days heís not pitching, Ohtani plays as a
designated hitter, where he averaged .322 last season with 22 home runs.
Despite these talent deficits, both teams had plenty of other native talent
to draw on, resulting in mixed outcomes at the 2017 WBC.
South Korea finished the inaugural WBC tournament in third place, lost to
Japan in the 2009 finals, then failed to advance out of the first round in 2013.
In 2017, South Korea hosted Pool A, giving them a leg up in a tough group.
Facing Israel in the first game, South Korea battled to a 1-1 tie after nine
innings before surrendering the winning run on an infield grounder in the 10th
inning. Against the Netherlands, South Korea fell behind early as the Dutch
scored three runs in the first two innings, eventually winning 5-0. Even lowly
Chinese Taipei proved a hard matchup, as South Korea needed 10 innings to secure
its only win. For its second straight tournament, South Korea did not escape the
Japan fared much better in its early games on home turf in Tokyo. They
crushed Cuba, 11-6, in their opening match, came back against Australia to win
4-1, then jumped on China early before winning 7-1.
Japan faced its toughest second-round challenge against the Netherlands. Each
team scored one run in the second inning, followed by four runs in the third,
three of Japanís coming from a homer by first baseman Sho Nakata. Japan took a
one-run lead in the fifth, but the Netherlands tied the score in the bottom of
the ninth. In the 11th, Nakata came through again, driving home two runs on a
line-drive single for the win.
Next, Japan faced Cuba, a rematch of their opening game with a similar
result. This time, the teams traded leads throughout the game until Japan scored
three in the bottom of the eighth and went on to an 8-5 win.
Facing surprising powerhouse Israel next, Japan seemed to have met their
match, as the game remained scoreless through five innings. But then Japan broke
open the game with five runs in the sixth and three more in the eighth, so the
three runs Israel scored in the top of the ninth didnít matter.
Japan headed to the WBC semifinal to face a U.S. team that had experienced
some early-round problems. Although they advanced from both brackets, the U.S.
dropped a game in each, losing 5-7 to the Dominican Republic and 5-6 to Puerto
But Japanís vaunted defense fell flat at precisely the wrong time in the
semifinal game. In the fourth inning, second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi bobbled a
hard ground ball, allowing Christian Yelich to reach second. Yelich would later
score on an Andrew McCutchen single for the gameís first run.
Kikuchi made up for his error in the sixth inning by tying the game with a
solo shot, and the score stayed knotted until the eighth when bad luck struck
once again for Japan. With runners on second and third, Adam Jones hit a hard
grounder to third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda, who misplayed the ball, allowing the
runner on third to scamper home with the go-ahead run. Japan had its chances to
respond, but came up empty, falling short of the final game by a single run.
It comes as some consolation that the U.S. won the 2017 WBC final, blanking
Puerto Rico 8-0. So Japan not only held the U.S. to its lowest run output of the
tournament, it also gave the champs their closest victory.
More importantly, the third-place finish highlighted the strength of Team
Japan, who played without any of its top-flight MLB players or Ohtani. While
future WBC tournaments may hold more disappointments for Team Japan, that may be
a sign of more top-notch Japanese talent, not less. And no fan of Asian sports
could ask for more than that.
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