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WBC final primer: Korea vs. Japan

It's fitting that the second World Baseball Classic has come down to a final between Japan and Korea, as the rivalry between those two nations has dominated the tournament both this year and in 2006. In the inaugural tournament, Korea beat Japan twice in pool play (by scores of 3-2 and 2-1) only to lose to them 6-0 in the semifinals. This year, they were the only two teams from the '06 semifinals to return to the final four, and they meet in the final having already faced off four times in pool play.

Japan and Korea not only enter tonight's final with identical 6-2 records, but each is the only team to have beaten the other, as they split their previous four matchups 2-2. The Japanese won the first confrontation, shocking everyone by mercying their rivals 14-2 in seven innings in Round 1 to clinch a berth in Round 2. Korea then answered back in the Round 1 seeding game, beating Japan 1-0 thanks in large part to 5 1/3 scoreless innings from starter and former Atlanta Braves lefty Jung Keun Bong. Bong threw another 5 1/3 solid innings against Japan in Round 2, as Korea clinched its semifinal berth with a 4-1 win. In that round, it was Japan that returned serve with a seeding-game victory, beating Korea 6-2.

Not surprisingly, Korea will start Bong again tonight. His combined line from his two previous victories over Japan in this tournament is 10 2/3 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 3 K. All three of those hits were singles, two of which didn't leave the infield. Pitching on five day's rest with a 100-pitch limit, Bong could very well pitch his team to the title. Then again, seeing him for the third-time in two weeks could give Japan an edge it didn't have in its previous two confrontations with Bong.

Bong's advantage over Japan is in no small part due to the hand he throws with. Japan has a heavily left-handed offense, as second baseman Akinori Iwamura and the entire Japanese outfield (including the reserves) swing southpaw. In fact, nine of the 15 non-pitchers on the Japanese roster bat exclusively left-handed. Catcher Kenji Johjima, who is both right-handed and Japan's leading hitter in the tournament (.400/.393/.560 after a trio of sacrifices last night), has three of Japan's six hits against Bong in this tournament, and there is little doubt that manager Tatsunori Hara will attempt to work as many other righty bats into his lineup tonight as he can. Unfortunately for Hara, of the six right-handed hitters on his roster, one is his third-string catcher.This means he'll have a minimum of four left-handed bats in his lineup, including Iwamura, the struggling Ichiro Suzuki (.211/.211/.289 with just one stolen base) and center fielder Kosuke Fukudome, who has seven walks but just four hits in the tournament. Against the U.S. Sunday night, Hara had seven left-handed bats in his lineup and his team managed just two singles while striking out six times in 3 1/3 innings against the U.S.'s left-handed relievers. Korea has four left-handed pitchers with whom it can follow Bong.

As was signaled by Hara's use of Yu Darvish to close Sunday night's game, Japan will counter Bong with right-handed starter Hisashi Iwakuma. Iwakuma dominated the Pacific League for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles last year, going 21-4 in just 28 starts and posting a 1.87 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 4.42 K/BB ratio. It was Iwakuma who dueled with Bong in Korea's 1-0 Round 1 seeding win, allowing one run on two singles and three walks while striking out five. In Round 2, Iwakuma threw six scoreless innings against Cuba and Japan went on to eliminate its 2006 final opponent and clinch another semifinal berth. Iwakuma's combined line from those two starts is 11 1/3, 7 H, 1 R, 4 BB, 6 K. First baseman Tae Kyun Kim, Korea's cleanup hitter (.385/.515/.769 with a tournament-best three homers and 11 RBIs), singled in the only run Iwakuma has allowed in the tournament.

Given the presence of Bong and Iwakuma, tonight's final looks to be another tense, low scoring ballgame. It could come down to the bullpens, in which case it will be all hands on deck. The only reliever on either team to throw 30 pitches in the semifinals -- thereby disqualifying himself from tonight's game -- was Japanese righty Takahiro Mahara, who gave up two runs in the eighth inning against the U.S. Darvish threw 21 pitches in the ninth last night, but remains eligible tonight.

That's not to slight the two offenses. Korea and Japan scored a combined 19 runs in the two semifinal games, each winning easily. Rather, when the two get together, things tend to tighten up. Indeed, if Japan to repeats as WBC champions tonight, they'll affirm their place as the dominant team in the tournament's brief history, but they'd still have only split their eight WBC contests against Korea.

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