The Chunichi Dragons maintained Japan's perfect run of Konami Cup titles on Sunday, coming from behind to defeat the SK Wyverns 6-5 at Tokyo Dome, but the gap between the Japan and South Korea appears to be closing.
Although the South Korean champs failed to bring the Cup home for the first time, they were justifiably proud of their effort, including a 6-3 win in their first-round opener over Chunichi.
Kim Jae Hyun, whose solo homer helped the SK come back on Sunday, was surprised how well his club matched up against the Dragons.
"Since I turned pro in 1994, my team has trained in Okinawa, where we had lots of preseason games against the Dragons," Kim said. "The Dragons were always ahead of us. But after this Konami Cup, I am confident that we are very close."
Close, perhaps, but no cigar.
Asia Series MVP Hirokazu Ibata broke a 5-5 tie in the top of the ninth inning after the Wyverns tied it in the bottom of the eighth.
Instead of his closer, SK skipper Kim Song Kun hoped to get to extra innings with former Hiroshima Carp right-hander Mike Romano, who had come on to finish the eighth.
Romano (1-1), who went 12-4 during the regular season, issued a leadoff walk to Atsushi Fujii, whose fifth-inning double had tied it 2-2. A sacrifice put him in scoring position and Ibata, who drove in all four runs in a 4-2 win over Taiwan's Uni-President Lions, singled up the middle.
"Because we didn't get a lead, I could not bring in my closer," said Kim, who kept his big bullpen gun holstered only to face the Dragons' top gun, Hitoki Iwase, in the bottom of the inning.
The lefty clinched Chunichi's title with a 1-2-3 ninth for his second save of the tournament.
The Wyverns put the Dragons in a two-run first-inning hole after Japan Series hero Daisuke Yamai walked two of the first four batters he faced. Lee Jin Young, who was the defensive star of the World Baseball Classic, opened the scoring with an RBI single.
Another single made it 2-0, but the Dragons got a solo homer from Kazuki Inoue, his third home run of the tournament, and took the lead against starter Kenny Rayborn with two runs in the fifth.
South Korea's Lee Byung Kyu, who joined the Dragons this season, belted a two-run homer in the sixth that allowed Chunichi to survive Kim's sixth-inning shot and Lee Jin Young's two-run homer in the eighth.
"Japan is a little ahead in terms of quality when it comes to the tiny details of the game," said the Dragons' Lee.
"Other than that, the quality is pretty much the same."