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Where EAST meets the Northwest

Norichika Aoki

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 first round.

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 Rico.

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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