If there is a right way to play baseball, the Japanese are sitting alone at the summit.
For the second time in three years, Japan won the recently-concluded World Baseball Classic, this time outlasting rival South Korea, 5-3, in 10 innings at Dodger Stadium before a near-capacity throng.
Tied at 3-3 in the top of the 10th, and first base open, South Korea, which had only one big-league player on its roster, Shin-Soo Choo, an outfielder with the Cleveland Indians, opted to pitch to Ichiro Suzuki, who laced a single to center field that scored two runs.
While playing outfield for the Seattle Mariners, Suzuki has cemented himself as one of the world’s great hitters, having smacked 200 hits or more every season since 2001. He owns a .331 career lifetime batting average, and a .377 on-base percentage.
Suzuki has been voted to the All-Star team every season, and has started seven games.
Team USA was defeated by Japan, 9-4, in the semifinal, which is better than the eighth-place finish in 2006. The United States turned in three errors, and was out-hit, 10-9, by the Japanese.
Should a game invented in America, but one in which Team USA had few productive moments when it mattered, be looked down with shame?
Every Team USA member plays in the major leagues, but this didn’t help during the 16-team tournament.
So having shortstop Derek Jeter, first baseman Kevin Youkilis, catcher Brian McCann, second basemen Jimmy Rollins and Brian Roberts, third basemen David Wright, Chipper Jones, and Evan Longoria, outfielders Adam Dunn, Ryan Braun, and Shane Victorino, along with pitchers Jake Peavy and Roy Oswalt on the team, didn’t matter?
Most would contend they are some of the best players in the world, but that they weren’t the best squad we could have put on the field.
Japan’s edge, and it seemed apparent throughout, is that it plays fundamentally sound, committing few mental and physical errors.
The mantra is get on base, advance the runner, and drive him in. It doesn’t matter who gets credit, just as long as he scores.
Let’s not forget Team Japan had two elite pitchers in Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is coming off an 18-3 mark with a 2.90 earned-run average for the Boston Red Sox, along with power-throwing Yu Darvish, who plays for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
Darvish throws his fastball better than 97 miles-per-hour, and has fantastic control.
Darvish is 22 years old, and is said to be even more polished than the 28-year-old Matsuzaka.
Darvish is 6-foot-5 and weighs 225 pounds. Right now, he would be a No. 1 starter with many big-league teams.
In four seasons, Darvish, whose father is Iranian, and whose mother is Japanese, has a 48-19 record with 585 strikeouts, 205 walks, along with a 2.33 ERA.
Japan also had Mariners’ catcher Kenji Johjima, Tampa Bay Rays’ second baseman Akinori Iwamura, and Chicago Cubs’ right fielder Kosuke Fukudome.
More than anything, the WBC proved that pitching, timely hitting and terrific defense, wins games. Home runs are nice, but they don’t always translate to victories.
The next time Team USA is formed, it might be a good idea to find players willing to sacrifice their play for the good of the team. That’s what they do in Japan.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, and is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a contributor to trufanboxing.com. You may e-mail him at email@example.com.