Big players often step up in big situations. When South Korean left-hander Bong Jung Keun realized that his club would likely be meeting Japan in the World Baseball Classic Pool A championship game, he had one thing to say to his manager: "Give me the ball."
"The player sitting next to me (Bong), he was telling me two days ago, 'Hey coach, I want to pitch against Japan,'" South Korea manager Kim In Sik told reporters after his team edged Japan 1-0 on Monday night at Tokyo Dome to avenge a big loss Saturday and finish in the top spot in the group. "That attitude really impressed me."
Bong, currently with the LG Twins after a three-year stint in the majors with Atlanta and Cincinnati where he posted a 7-4 record, combined with three relievers to shut out the mighty Japanese, restricting the reigning WBC champs to just six hits--all singles.
Bong carried most of the load, allowing three hits in 5 1/3 innings, and the Koreans did not walk a single batter all evening. They also held Seattle Mariners star Ichiro to a single hit as he went 1-for-4 on Monday, a couple of days after breaking out of his batting funk with three hits in Japan's 14-2 rout of Korea.
The Korean team pushed a run across in the fourth inning when cleanup-hitter Kim Tae Kyun pulled an RBI single down the third-base line off Japan starter Hisashi Iwakuma. Bong and the boys in the bullpen made sure that was all they would need.
"Two days ago, yes, Japan beat us very badly," said manager Kim, referring to Japan's seven-inning mercy-rule victory. "But this is baseball and, as everybody now recognizes, you can see just how important good pitching is in this game. Sometimes 95 percent of baseball relies upon the pitchers, especially the starting pitcher. Today our starting pitcher, Bong Jung Keun, and our closer Lim Chang Yong, and also Jong Hyun Wook and Ryu Hyun Jin out of the bullpen, they all pitched so great."
Bong also cited Saturday's embarrassing 14-2 pounding as a motivating factor on Monday night.
"Of course, in the last game we lost by a big margin," he said. "However, all of our players were together, united and single-minded to get revenge on the Japan team. We concentrated on this game with such passion to beat Japan. We tried to bring up our confidence and I tried to concentrate on each and every ball I threw--I can say that I had confidence in confronting Japan and although they're very great players, I was confident we would beat them."
Bong also said he felt that Japan's bullpen "was a bit unstable." While Toshiya Sugiuchi, Takahiro Mahara, Yu Darvish, Tetsuya Yamaguchi and Kyuji Fujikawa went a combined 3 2/3 innings and gave up just a pair of hits, they did walk four batters.
Like South Korea, Japan got good starting pitching as well, with Iwakuma limiting the Koreans to just two hits while also going 5 1/3 innings. But a leadoff walk--one of three free passes issued by the Rakuten Eagles' 21-game winner--in the fourth to Lee Jong Wook would prove costly as Kim Tae Kyun would drive in Lee three batters later.
"It was a shame that I walked the leadoff batter and that led to a run," rued Iwakuma, "but I suppose I can build on this since I was able to make a good start. I want to get myself into shape for the next round."
Both Korea and Japan, who advanced from Pool A as the top two teams in the group, took charter flights to Phoenix after Monday's game. They will train in Arizona before moving to San Diego for Round 2 beginning March 15. In San Diego, Japan and South Korea will be joined in Pool 1 by two teams from Pool B in Mexico City. Cuba, Mexico and Australia are fighting for the other two spots with South Africa already eliminated.
The WBC final is March 23 in Los Angeles.