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Mercy, mercy me / Ichiro comes alive as Japan barbecues rival S. Korea to book spot in 2nd round

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Mercy, mercy me / Ichiro comes alive as Japan barbecues rival S. Korea to book spot in 2nd round

by Jim Allen (Mar 8, 2009)

Ichiro Suzuki broke out of his slump, helping Japan qualify for the second round of the World Baseball Classic with a 14-2, mercifully ended thumping of Asian rival South Korea on Saturday.

Suzuki, who had just three infield singles in seven games for Japan this year, opened the game with a hit and Japan beat seemingly untouchable lefty Kim Kwang Hyun.

"Of course, his hit was huge," Japan skipper Tatsunori Hara said. "He's been in a terrible funk and I imagine he was under so much pressure. But Ichiro being Ichiro, he had a big leadoff hit."

Suzuki went 3-for-5 and scored three runs in a game before 45,640 that was shortened by the tournament's mercy rule for 10-run games after seven innings.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, the MVP of the 2006 tournament, won his fourth straight WBC game, allowing two runs in four innings as he struggled with his slider early.

"I was throwing lots of sliders in the dirt," Matsuzaka said. "After the first inning, catcher [Kenji] Jojima and I decided to feature the fastball and cutter, while working in my other pitches to regain my feel for them."

Although he won, Matsuzaka nearly wasted a three-run, first-inning lead and said he didn't meet the expectations placed on him as Japan's ace.

"I know my position on the team, and I should have shut them down," he said. "Next time out, I want to start the way I pitched from the second inning."

After Suzuki got things started with a bloop single off the 20-year-old Kim--who had not lost to a Japanese team since 2005--Hiroyuki Nakajima grounded up the middle and Norichika Aoki duplicated that feat, plating Suzuki.

Just when Kim appeared to be regaining control with a pair of strikeouts, Seiichi Uchikawa plated two more runs with a two-out double past the bag at third.

"It was my first international at-bat, and with two outs and a chance to get a run, I wasn't going to get cheated on my swing," said Uchikawa, who hit .378 last year for the BayStars.

After Matsuzaka surrendered a two-run homer to South Korea cleanup man Kim Tae Kyun, Japan effectively ended the game with a five-run second.

Jojima, who went 3-for-4 with a two-run home run, led off the second with a single. A walk and a picture-perfect bunt single by Suzuki loaded the bases. Nakajima, who went 3-for-4 and reached on an error, walked home a run. Another run scored when Aoki hustled his way out of a double play, and Shuichi Murata followed with a three-run homer.

"I kept fouling off sliders, so maybe he ran out of pitches," said Murata of his homer off a changeup Kim .

Murata said his form was lacking, but it didn't prevent him from reaching the seats for the second time in two games.

"It was another off-balance swing, but this one got in, too. A sacrifice fly would have been just fine," said the BayStars slugger.

In the first inning, Murata's defense had helped preserve the lead in the first when he cut down a runner with a throw from third base.

Down by three runs in the first, the Koreans bounced back quickly, with Jeung Keun Woo leading the attack. Jeung singled with one out and challenged Suzuki's arm on Kim Hyun Soo's single to right field. Jeung beat a wide throw to third, but Murata cut down Kim trying to sneak into second.

Kim Tae Kyun followed with a massive homer off a billboard high above the left-field stands, but it was close as the Koreans would come.

"We gave up a big lead, and when Japan piled on the runs, perhaps some of the guys lost their concentration," Kim said.

"At the postgame meeting, we talked about not getting down and just playing tomorrow."

Today, the Koreans play surprising China, a 4-1 winner over Taiwan earlier in the day, for the right to play Japan in the final.

"Today is over," Kim said. "We're only thinking about tomorrow. We'll get a great win and play against Japan on Monday."

Both teams playing Monday will advance to the second round in San Diego, but the winner will open against the second-place team coming out of the Mexico City Round.

South Korea skipper Kim In Sik, who managed the team to a 6-1 record in 2006, didn't want to get ahead of himself by thinking about Monday.

"The most important game for us is tomorrow's," he said. "I can't think about the future beyond that. If we don't win tomorrow, there's no game Monday."

Kim said the thrashing was no surprise, even given his nation's recent success against Japan. South Korea beat Japan twice in the Beijing Olympics en route to the gold medal and beat the Japanese twice in 2006 before losing to them in the semifinals.

"Compared to the Olympics, when no major leaguers were available, Japan has four or five major leaguers now and we don't," Kim said. "From that standpoint, our talent pool is different.

"And though we've won a lot of games against them in recent years, I have always felt that Japan's game is more advanced than ours."

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