I know it's been a couple of weeks but I wanted to write about the final game of the World Baseball Classic. I had been hoping for a really good game for the final as the two semifinal games hadn't been close and had been decided by misplays. I got what I was rooting for.
Like the previous games, Jason and I tried to predict the winners and score. I had picked the winners of the semi-finals correctly and was calling for a Korea victory against Japan. For all the baseball games I've attended during my lifetime, I had never encountered such a supportive crowd as those of the Koreans against Venezuela. Especially on a "neutral" field, I just felt that the Korean crowd would help lift them to victory in the finals.
In the early going, it seemed as if the game would become another blowout. The two pitchers - Jung Keun Bong for Korea and Hisashi Iwakuma for Japan - were having quite different experiences out there. Bong gave up an opening single to Ichiro and also issued a walk before getting out of the first inning. He also gave up a walk and single in the second. The third inning was his worst yet as he allowed a trio of singles and Korea made an error. Despite all the runners, though, he was keeping the ball down and got tons of groundouts including a huge double play to end the third. Somehow, perhaps in part due to the crowd, he managed to just allow a single run in the first three innings.
Iwakuma, on the other hand, was magnificent. He hardly threw any pitches. He was perfect through the first eleven batters he faced and believe me, I knew it. I was feeling the perfect game. I often jest about a guy throwing a no-hitter, especially if he's looking ugly. A pitcher might walk the first two batters before the next batter hits a deep fly that is caught on the warning track which will make me say "26 more outs for the no-hitter". That night, though, I wasn't saying a word. Iwakuma looked flawless and the biggest question to me was whether he would hit the pitch limit the WBC has before he could complete the perfect game.
The asshat a couple rows behind me had different ideas. After batter eleven went down he looked at the school board and said "Hey, he's got a no-hitter going". I turn around and glare at him for putting the kibosh on Iwakuma. You don't talk about no-hitters when they're happening. Sure enough, I turn back around and a single is lined to center. Damn asshat ruined the perfect game for me.
Shin-Soo Choo led off the fifth inning with a monstrous homer off Iwakuma to tie the game at one. I knew that was the turning point right there and that victory would soon be Korea's. Iwakuma continued his dominance of Korea's bats and Japan opened the seventh off reliever Hyun Wook Jong with three straight singles which gave them a 2-1 lead. Korea got another double play, their third of the game, to escape the inning without further damage.
Both teams manufactured a run in the eighth and Korea shut down Japan in the top of the ninth. Much to my excitement, Japan brought in Yu Darvish to close out the game.
As Darvish walked to the mound I turned to Jason and said "If you didn't look at the scoreboard, you would never know Korea is three outs away from losing this thing". Despite being a run down in the bottom of the ninth and facing one of the best young pitchers in the world, the Korean fans were still chanting and clapping and drumming and everything else as if they were winning by ten runs. It was amazing.
Speaking of amazing, Yu Darvish is amazing. I've seen some dominating pitches in my lifetime. Tom Gordon, in his prime, had the greatest curveball I've ever seen. The ball curved so much it seemed to defy physics. Number two was the Orioles closer Gregg Olson. Darryl Kile, when he was with the Astros, had a fantastic 12-6 curveball. In college I got to witness Billy Wagner's fastball first hand which I'm sure was just as good in the majors but against overmatched college kids looked like it was probably traveling 150 miles per hour.
Yu Darvish's slider is right there with those pitches. Darvish is a hard thrower, hitting the mid-nineties with his fastball. His slider also comes in ridiculously fast, around the mid-eighties. In other words, not too much different than an average pitcher's fastball. So you have this pitch coming at you looking like a "typical" fastball and then it just breaks insanely on you.
Darvish used it perfection on the first batter, getting him to miss the slider for the third strike. He then lost control of the pitch and walked the next two batters before getting Choo swinging. But Bum Ho Lee got a hold of a pitch and ripped it to center for a single to tie the game. Darvish then struck out his third batter of the inning swinging to end the inning.
Needless to say, the fans were going nuts. Unfortunately for them, one of the most baffling mismanagements of an inning I've seen in my life was about to take place.
Japan opened the 10th with a single, sacrificed the runner to second and then stopped the runner at third on a single to left. With runners at the corners and one out, things were looking bleak for the Korea nine. Japan brought in a pinch-hitter who hit a popout for the second out. This brought up Ichiro.
The pitcher ran a 1-2 count on Ichiro at which point I commented to Jason "They're not holding the runner on first". The runner took off but Ichiro fouled off the pitch. I figured Korea would remedy this error but sure enough, next pitch, the first baseman was off the bag and the runner took second uncontested.
Here's where my griping about the managing differs widely from the complaints in the media. Everything I heard or read after the game involved people saying "You had first base open, why would you pitch to Ichiro?". My question is why aren't you holding the runner. As I said to Jason at the time, you CANNOT let two runners be in scoring position, especially with Ichiro at the plate. A single now plates two runs. If you hold the runner at first a single just gets one run across. If you're behind with just three outs to go, do you want to make up a one-run or two-run deficit.
Even more baffling to me is why you would do that with Ichiro up. If it were some lefty pull hitter, sure, you can explain the move because having the first baseman away from the bag to cover more territory makes more sense. But against Ichiro? Ichiro doesn't pull the ball and he's not definitely not going to with a 1-2 count even if he were a pull hitter. He's going to be protecting the plate with two strikes. So just a completely inexplicable decision.
Needless to say, Ichiro singled in the two runs and then he took second on the throw home. Why was there a throw home? Because the runner on second, who was on first not too long ago, was coming around to score. So not only are you now two runs behind, you have another running in scoring position.
After one pitch, Ichiro waltzed into third for the second defensive indifference of the inning. The batter was hit by a pitch. He then went into second for the third defensive indifference of the inning. At this point I was beginning to think they could just walk on home that, by golly, Korea was going to get the batter at the plate out and the hell with who gets on base and what they do when they get there. Korea finally ended the misery with a strikeout.
Japan sent Darvish back out in the tenth and he was still looking iffy and dominant. He walked the leadoff batter, struck the next guy out swinging, induced a fly out and then got the third out on a swinging strike to give Japan the victory. Six outs, five of them strikeouts swinging.
Amazingly, the crowd noise from Japan winning was far less than that of Korea during the game. Well, maybe not so amazing. On the way to the ballpark, we heard on the radio that the only city in the world with more Koreans than Los Angeles was Seoul. It was quite an experience and I'm glad that I took the opportunity to catch the games. I hope the World Baseball Classic continues so that folks can get to see more of the world's players compete.