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
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
As was signaled by Hara's use of
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
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.