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THE HOT CORNER: Providing a classic debate

by Jim Allen (Mar 12, 2009)

The first World Baseball Classic was a good tournament, and by all appearances this year's is better still. But if a classic is something of enduring excellence, how can one have an inaugural classic? If it had been a classic in anything other than its name, why were so many changes made for 2009?

Perhaps this is to be expected as the brain child of a nation that calls its domestic title holders the world champions. But nit-picking aside, this year's changes increase the chances of the WBC someday becoming what it is called.

The double-elimination format is a major step up in terms of entertainment value and ticket sales. With 42,879 attending this year's Tokyo finale--another one-run win by South Korea over Japan--attendance was up 68 percent over 2006.

Loud advocates of a particular format will say other methods don't determine the best team.

But the purpose of playing tournaments, whether they are best-of-seven series or 162-game regular seasons, is not to determine the best team. The purpose is to select a champion.

The champion is not necessarily the best team or even the team that plays the best, but the one that wins when it counts the most. That was how Japan triumphed in the 2006 WBC despite losing three times in the first two rounds.

Japan somehow made it to the knockout round in 2006 and then didn't lose. The Koreans finished with a 6-1 record, but the lone loss came in the semifinals.

This time, Asia's powerhouses split their Tokyo games, with the Koreans winning the final 1-0.

Although Sunday's clash lacked the dramatic plays and turns of fortune of 2006's thrilling Asian finale, it provided a classic talking point--classic in the sense of a perfect example--about tactics.

The Koreans won with their walks, drawing seven, four times to lead off an inning. The Japanese drew no walks and four of their six singles came with two outs and none on.

Good pitching and defense limited the options of manager Tatsunori Hara and his hitters. And only a hard-core believer in the mystic power of the sacrifice bunt would believe Hara was right in his one tactical decision.

The opportunity came in the eighth inning against South Korea after Ichiro Suzuki singled with one out. Suzuki, an 82-percent base stealer in the majors, had to get a jump on right-hander Lim Chang Yong on the mound. Last year, Lim was no better or worse than the other Tokyo Yakult pitchers at preventing steals.

At the plate was Hiroyuki Nakajima. A proven big-game hitter, he would have been 5-for-8 at that point in the tournament, but he had been robbed of a line drive single in the first inning. Batting in the middle of the Saitama Seibu Lions order, he is just 7-for-11 in his career trying to sacrifice and 0-for-1 trying to bunt his way on.

It would seem to be a no-brainer.

But Hara, who said he's passionate about showing the world the power of Asian baseball, did what Hara does--he aggressively called for a bunt.

Nakajima bunted the first pitch foul and Hara decided there was no turning back. Nakajima got the next one down, Ichiro went to second and died there when Lim retired Swallows teammate Norichika Aoki to end the inning.

Hara's managing strength is team building. With the Yomiuri Giants, he excels at employing unproven players. Hara says what he means and doesn't make promises he can't keep. In Japan, team building can sometimes mean occasionally asking your best hitters to sacrifice--even when it makes almost no sense. Perhaps this was one of those times.

Often in his game managing, however, Hara either ignores the available data or isn't aware of it. But odder than Hara's choice is that the Japanese media nodded its collective head and said nothing.

In one sense, Japan is lucky to have Hara. If former Fighters manager Yasunori Oshima had gotten the job, the nation would be in mourning now. Currently with NHK, Oshima criticized Hara--for not bunting earlier. With who? He only had two other opportunities, both in the fourth, both with Nakajima already in scoring position with no outs.

One supposes we should count our blessings we have Hara.


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