Echoing history, a Lee ensures Japan’s defeatLee Seung-yeop became a national hero in 2006 after he hit a go-ahead two-run homer against Japan in the final stretch of the inaugural World Baseball Classic’s first-round game at the Tokyo Dome and ensured Korea’s 3-2 victory.
Nine years later, Lee returned to the Tokyo Dome - this time as a TV commentator for the first-ever Premier 12 baseball tournament. But some fans wished he was playing as well; things weren’t looking good for the national team.
Fortunately, Korea had another Lee up its sleeve - Lee Dae-ho, whose clutch hit delivered one of Korea’s most memorable victories on Japanese soil, overcoming a 3-0 deficit in the ninth inning.
The dramatic comeback took place on Thursday, when Korea beat Japan 4-3 by scoring four runs in the ninth inning to reach the final.
During the broadcast, Lee Seung-yeop said he was hoping for a “new hero,” and his wish had come true.
“It was more thrilling that I hit a home run in the past,” said Lee Seung-yeop, who retired from the national team in late 2013, though he is still playing with the Samsung Lions.
After giving up three runs to Japan in the fourth, Korea struggled to find its offensive feet against Japanese starter Shohei Otani.
Otani was the pitcher in the Premier 12 opener, where Korea was blanked 5-0 by Japan on Nov. 8. The 21-year-old then shut out Korean batters with 10 strikeouts over six innings, allowing only two hits.
But in the semifinal, Otani was even more dominant, notching 11 strikeouts over seven innings while giving up only one hit and one walk. He had a no-hitter through the sixth.
However, Korea’s rally started from the ninth when two pinch hitters, Oh Jae-won and Son Ah-seop, hit back-to-back singles from relief pitcher Takahiro Normito, and Jeong Keun-woo delivered a double to left for their first run of the game.
Lee Yong-kyu then loaded the bases with no one out. Japan put Yuki Matsui in as relief pitcher, but he walked Kim Hyun-soo to make the score 3-2.
The stage was set, and the eyes of 40,258 fans were on Lee Dae-ho, who was named the Japan Series MVP with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in the Nippon Professional Baseball league this year.
The 33-year-old slugger didn’t disappoint, hitting a two-run single to left from Matsui and giving Korea a 4-3 lead, which turned out to be the final score.
“We had the mindset of not giving up the game until the end,” Lee said. “We wanted to have revenge and personally, I didn’t want to lose.”
This was a shock to Japan, which has been trying to win the inaugural World Baseball Softball Confederation competition in a bid to raise the popularity of baseball and make it the official sport of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games.
On Friday, the top story in all the Japanese sports newspapers described the team’s stunning loss and criticized manager Hiroki Kokubo.
For Korea, it was a win that washed off the stress of a tournament marred by frequent schedule changes.
After beating Cuba in the quarterfinals in Taiwan, Korea thought the semifinal would be played on Friday, but organizers later said that since Japan also reached the semifinals, the game would be moved to Thursday.
The organizers later provided a 7:30 a.m. flight to Tokyo on Wednesday morning, which required Korean players to wake up at 4 a.m. to reach the airport.
Now, thanks to the schedule change, Korea got a day of rest before playing in the final tonight, where the team will face either the United States or Mexico.
As of press time, the U.S.-Mexico game had yet to finish.
On Friday, Korea’s batters had voluntary training sessions, while pitchers rested.
Manager Kim In-sik, who will be looking for his first international title after leading Korea to a gold medal in the 2002 Asian Games, said he hopes to keep the momentum from the dramatic semifinal victory going.
“But you never know in the game of baseball,” he said.
BY JOO KYUNG-DON [email@example.com]