Finally competitive baseball at last. Okay, spring training might be a lot of fun for some people, but just as all the exhibition games before the start of the football season over here in Germany those matches only have the feeling of a placebo shot. Something’s lacking. It might be the competitiveness, it might be the spectators, whatever it is, when the competition starts things get interesting for me. Which is why I was really looking forward to the start of the World Baseball Classic tournament.
Another reason was definetely the appearance of the Japanese team. I sometimes have the opportunity to watch a Japanese ballgame every now and then, but I had never seen an international match before. Plus scheduled was the eternal rivalry classic against Korea, so that was something to look forward to. Another rivalry matchup was scheduled later for that day. The United States team was supposed to take on the Canadians at Toronto. In between, just to calm down (I thought), was The Netherlands against carribean powerhouse the Dominican Republic at the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. But the day started off with the game in Asia.
Japan – Korea 14-2 (7th/called game)
I was pretty surprised about the atmosphere at Tokyo Dome. When I tuned in it was still the 1st inning and Japan had just gotten in front 3-0. The place was rocking and the noise was amazing. I can’t recall how those runs were manufactured, but it seemed that the batting of Team Japan was a lot more effective that it used to be during the two exhibition games against the Seibu Lions and the Yomiuri Giants last weekend. They were knocking around Korean starter Kwang-Hyun Kim, who led the team to the Olympic gold medal, for 1 1/3 innings, scoring 8 runs, some of that coming from Shuichi Murata who scored a 3-run homerun. Daisuke Matsuzaka started the game for Japan and was shaky at first, allowing two runs in the 1st and by doing so gave the Koreans a glimmer of hope, but he was dominating over the next three innings and handed a huge lead to Shunsuke Watanabe, who came in as a reliever. I was very much impressed by his performance. 7 pitches, three outs. Very effective. I always wanted to watch him pitch in a game as it is nearly impossible for me to see NPB games over here. So he comes into the game and is out after one inning and only 7 puitches. Frustrating and impressive at the same time.
When Watanabe came in in the 5th inning the lead was already at 11-2 and the commentators were talking about the mercy rule which says that it will be a called game when a team is in front 10 or more runs by the end of the 7th inning. Everybody seemed very excited as noone was expecting a rout like this after Japan had a lot of trouble with the Korean team in the inaugural WBC in 2006. Kenji Johjima added a 2-run homer in the 6th and the lead was 13-2. Korea seemed demoralized. There seemed to be some light at the end of the tunnel for them when reliever Minoru Iwata of the Hanshin Tigers struggled a little bit in the 7th, but he was able to close it our and the game was over. This was a powerful performance by Japan, not only offensively, but also defensively. Korea never stood a chance and it remains to be seen if this was just a bad day for them or if their team just doesn’t have it this time around.
Dominican Republic – The Netherlands 2-3
I missed the top half of the first inning which was a mistake as The Netherlands jumped to a three run lead here. From what I heard about baseball in Europe the Dutch team is one of the better sides in European competition. Still they should have been no match to a star-studded Dominican line up which even without Alex Rodriguez featured players like David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, Robby Cano, Miguel Tejada, … the list goes on and on. But they weren’t able to hurt Dutch starter Sidney Ponson that much only scoring one solo homerun in the 4th and another run in the 5th, when Ponson came out again, but wasn’t able to score an out. Pedro Martinez kept his team in the game with three great innings of relief (1 H, 4 K, 0 BB). Four Dutch relievers only surrendered 3 hits a held on to the lead until the final out. The closer for The Netherlands, Leon Boyd, never closed a game before at all. This is a huge upset, comparable to the 1-0 defeat of Argentina by the hands (or feet) of Cameroon at the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. It is always a good sign when so called superpowers lose to an underdog team in international competition and it can only be benificial to the tournament. It’s the same in other sports. The Dominican Republic should still be able to advance to the next round with a win over Panama, but the loss against the Netherlands is already THE big surprise of the competition.
United States – Canada 6-5
Apparently this match also had all the ingredients for a huge game. Neighbouring countries are always rivals and the USA and Canada share a rich history of sports clashes with the hockey games being the most interesting ones, I believe. I wasn’t expecting that much of the Canadian team although they were playing in front of their home crowd. The US team, although they were lacking some players, still had the better players in my opinion. But Canada jumped to a 1-0 lead in the first against US starter Jake Peavy and when their starting pitcher Mike Johnson fanned Chipper Jones and David Wright after Derek Jeter hit a double Rogers Center was rocking. This game was very close and although the US team came in as the winner it could easily have been the other way around. Again, this can only be good for the competition. With close games like this one people will have more interest in the tournament. What broke Team Canada’s neck was the lack of potent pitching. Johnson kept them in the game, but he also surrendered 4 runs. The relief corps wasn’t nearly as sharp as their US counterparts.
Other games were Puerto Rico vs Panama (7-0) and Venezuela vs Italy (7-0)