Ichiro blast lifts Japan in WBC thriller

LOS ANGELES Tue Mar 24, 2009 9:50am EDT

Team Japan poses with the trophy after defeating Team Korea in the World Baseball Classic championship game in Los Angeles, California March 23, 2009. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Team Japan poses with the trophy after defeating Team Korea in the World Baseball Classic championship game in Los Angeles, California March 23, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

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Japan, Korea cheer WBC final

Tue, Mar 24 2009

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Japan retained the World Baseball Classic title by beating bitter Asian rivals South Korea 5-3 in a pulsating 10-inning battle at Dodger Stadium on Monday.

Seattle Mariners right-fielder Ichiro Suzuki belted a two-run single up the middle in the top of the 10th for his fourth hit of the game to lift Japan to victory over the Olympic champions and repeat their triumph from the inaugural tournament in 2006.

Japan took a 3-1 lead in the eighth but South Korea battled back with one run in the bottom half of the inning and another with two outs in the ninth on an Lee Bum-ho RBI single to left field that sent the game to extra innings.

Ichiro, the Major League record holder for most hits in a season with 262 in 2004, had been quiet at the plate during the WBC but picked the perfect time to break out.

The dynamic right-fielder fought side-arming reliever Lim Chang-yong through an eight-pitch at-bat with runners on second and third before he drove a 2-2 pitch into center field to give Japan their winning margin.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, who notched the victory in Japan's semi-final victory over the United States, was named MVP of the Classic, repeating the honor the Boston Red Sox hurler claimed in 2006.

"It's not something that everybody can experience, and it's not something that everybody can earn," Matsuzaka told reporters. "So I feel that I'm very lucky. I'm really thankful about the MVP. I didn't think that it was going to be me at all."

JUBILANT JAPANESE

Yu Darvish, a 22-year-old hard-throwing starter, came on in relief in the ninth and yielded the game-tying run after struggling with his control before shutting South Korea down in the 10th to register the win and set off joyous celebrations.

Darvish was mobbed on the mound by his team mates, who clustered in the infield to hug each other after easing the pain of an Olympics that left them out of the medals.

Manager Tatsunori Hara was tossed into the air by players on the jubilant team as 2006 Japan manager Sadaharu Oh watched on. They later paraded around Dodger Stadium holding a giant Japan flag and waving to fans.

"We became number one in the world," Hara said.

"The fact that two Asian countries were able to play against each other in the finals is something that we and the Koreans can be proud of."

It was the fifth clash between the two teams during the 16-nation WBC tournament and a rubber-match after the rivals had split their first four meetings for their only defeats in the competition.

Japan controlled the action, threatening throughout the early innings but failing to cash in opportunities as the Olympic gold medalists turned three doubles plays to escape danger despite being outhit 15-to-5 in the contest.

Japan broke the ice with a run in the third on a single by Michihiro Ogasawara that scored Hiroyuki Nakajima, although they failed to add to the total despite loading the bases.

Choo Shin-soo, who plays for MLB's Cleveland Indians, tied the game with home run to left-center leading off the fifth.

Single runs in the seventh and eighth put Japan ahead before the late rallies by the determined Koreans spoiled the brilliant starting performance by Hisashi Iwakuma and sent the game to extra frames.

(Writing by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by John O'Brien)

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