Surprise, surprise, surprise.
I still can't believe that Japan beat Korea, and by such a wide margin. And I'm fairly certain that no one in Japan thought such a victory would be possible. But it happened. And here's why.
The key to tonight's game was definitely Ichiro (3-for-5). He set the tone for the offense with his first at bat. The minute he got his hit, the fans were going crazy. After that, it was just a matter of keeping the inning alive by stringing hits together.
Ichiro also came up big in the second inning with a bunt single that set the stage for Murata's 3-run bomb. Ichiro proved tonight just how important he is to Japan's offense -- when Ichiro goes, Japan's offense goes. Shut him down, and you shut down the entire offense.
The top three batters combined to go 7-for-13 with 7 runs and 5 RBI against Korea tonight. Compare that to the game against China where the top three went 2-for-10 and it's easy to see why Ichiro is so important.
As for the rest of the lineup... To be honest, I was a little uncertain about Hara's choice to bat Murata fourth (2-for-4 with 3 RBI), but it worked out (and that's why he's in the dugout and I'm at home watching the game on TV). And starting Uchikawa (1-for-3 with 2 RBI), a killer against lefties, over Inaba also turned out to be a smart move.
On pitching, I think this was really important start for Matsuzaka. Up until this game, he didn't have much luck on the international stage and things weren't looking very good after his first inning of work. But he bore down and really settled in nicely after a rocky start. His final line: 4 IP, 65 pitches, 4 hits (1 homer), 1 strike out, 2 walks, and 2 earned runs. I think this solid outing will carry-over to his next start.
The bullpen also did it's job, shutting Korea's powerful offense down. Iwata had a bit of a rough outing, but I'll chalk up his shaky performance to first-time jitters (it was his first appearance in an international game) -- he looked really nervous against the first two batters he faced and then settled down after that.
But it's not over yet. There's still a very good chance that Japan will face Korea again on Monday. After tonight's game, I'd have to give Japan the edge. And you can't disregard the fact that Korea would be playing in their fourth consecutive game in as many days.
Speaking of which, Korea will now face China to determine who will 1) be Japan's opponent for Pool A Championships and 2) continue on to the next round. I was a little surprised when I heard that China beat Taipei. In the games I saw (Japan vs. China and Korea vs. Taipei), Taipei seemed like the stronger team. I don't think I was alone because I kept hearing TV reporters talking about how they were surprised to see China advance.
In any case, tomorrow's game might end up being an interesting match-up. Why would I say that when it would be easy to pick Korea over China?
As far as I know, I don't think Korea has ever suffered such a huge loss. And it was also against one of their best pitchers. The fact that the game also had to be called, that's gotta be an added blow to the loss.
I think the questions then become:
- Can Korea shake this loss off?
My guess here is that Korea does shake the loss off.
- Just how good is China?
While I think China has improved, they still probably aren't on the same level as Korea yet.
- Will fatigue be a factor for either team?
China will be playing in their second straight game in as many days; Korea will be playing in their third straight game in as many days. Whether or not this ends up being a factor, I have no idea, but it could.
My guess: Korea recovers, beats China, and we see another match-up of Japan vs. Korea on Monday.
In either case, I'll be in attendace for both games (with camera in hand). I'm most certainly pumped.