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'09 WBC: Ichiro finally gets his groove back

by Rob Smaal (Mar 9, 2009)

Yes, it was a huge win over an archrival on a grand stage. But, really, it was much more than that as Ichiro finally got his groove back.

Leadoff-hitter Ichiro had three hits as Japan demolished South Korea 14-2 in a game called after seven innings Saturday night due to the mercy rule, guaranteeing that the defending World Baseball Classic champions will move on to the next round in San Diego.

Japan still has one more game to play in Pool A, another meeting with the Koreans tonight at Tokyo Dome that will determine the seedings for the next round. The top two teams from each four-nation first-round group advance in a double-knockout format.

While the big blows were delivered by Shuichi Murata, Seiichi Uchikawa and Kenji Jojima, it was Ichiro who got the party started---and what a party it turned out to be!

After going 0-for-5 in Japan's WBC-opening 4-0 win over China on Thursday, Ichiro finally busted out of an uncharacteristic slump this spring. The Seattle Mariners outfielder stroked a solid line single to right field Saturday off South Korean lefty Kim Kwang Hyun (0-1), a pitcher who had gotten a big win over Japan at the Beijing Olympics, to lead off the game.

The packed house erupted in cheers, and as cameras flashed away you could almost sense the feeling of relief in the building. With Ichiro, the man largely credited with leading Japan to the WBC title in 2006, back on his game, Japan could very well be in the championship mix again.

Consecutive follow-up singles by Hiroyuki Nakajima and Norichika Aoki brought Ichiro around to score the game's first run and he would go on to finish the game 3-for-5.

"Ichiro's leadoff single was huge for us," said Samurai Japan manager Tatsunori Hara. "He's a genius as a hitter, but after going 0-for-5 (against China) I imagine he felt a lot stress."

Not only had Ichiro gone hitless against the Chinese, but he had just three hits in Japan's six warm-up games leading into the tournament, and a couple of those were infield tappers he barely beat out.

"It's been a while since I felt comfortable at the plate," Ichiro told reporters after Saturday's game.

Murata must be feeling comfortable at the dish as well. The Yokohama BayStars slugger cranked his second home run of the tournament, a three-run shot off Kim in the second inning that ended the left-hander's evening.

Uchikawa, Murata's teammate with the BayStars who led NPB with a .378 batting average in 2008, had cashed in Nakajima and Aoki with a two-run double in the first and Murata's blast to left helped Japan build an 8-2 lead after two innings. The rout was on.

Seattle catcher Jojima had three hits, including a two-run homer in the sixth, while Seibu shortstop Nakajima was also 3-for-4 with a pair of RBIs. Swallows outfielder Aoki drove in three runs on the night as Japan out-hit the Koreans 14-4.

Boston Red Sox 18-game winner Daisuke Matsuzaka (1-0) got the start for Japan. He gave up all four Korean hits--including a towering two-run tater off the Kirin beer sign above the left-field bleachers by Kim Tae Kyun in the bottom of the first--through four frames, walking a pair and striking out one batter. Despite the lopsided victory, the Diceman was not happy with his outing.

"I didn't perform well at all," said Matsuzaka, the MVP of the 2006 tournament. "I was planning to throw a lot of breaking balls to get ahead in the count but it didn't work out. But at least we managed to win and in the last few years we have not beaten the Koreans often. To defend the title, we have to defeat them, so in that respect today's game was very important."

South Korea, the reigning Olympic champion, beat Japan twice in both Beijing and at the 2006 WBC, including once in the opening round at Tokyo Dome. In '06, Japan finally beat South Korea 6-0 in the semifinals before topping Cuba 10-6 in the WBC final in San Diego.

Hara brought in Marines submariner Shunsuke Watanabe, Hawks left-hander Toshiya Sugiuchi and Hanshin's Minoru Iwata for an inning each to finish off the Koreans. While Watanabe and Sugiuchi both set the side down in order, Iwata struggled with his control, walking one batter and hitting another with a pitch. He was eventually able to settle down, striking out pinch-hitter Lee Bum Ho to end it.


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