Japan ended a 25-year drought against the United States on Monday and are now looking to end another against defending champions South Korea to win their first gold medal since the official Olympic sport of baseball.
For the first time since the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Japan won an Olympic baseball game against the United States and won the Tokyo Olympic quarter-finals 7-6.
Japanese players celebrate after Takuya Kai (3rd from L) wins the game in the 10th inning of their Olympic second round match in Tokyo against the USA on August 2, 2021 at the Yokohama baseball stadium near Tokyo. (Kyodo) = = Kyodo
Japan shouldn’t need dramatic late night rallies for a gold medal favorite riddled with local top pros, but since the 2000 Olympics allowed pros to compete, Japan’s pro teams have consistently disappointed.
American minor league teams and senior former major league players have beaten Japan once in 2000 and twice in 2008, while Japan’s professional stars have been beaten four times by South Korea in those two Olympics. The only time Japanese pros have won an Olympic medal was in 2004, when Japan’s elite stars won bronze in a tournament without the United States or South Korea.
For the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the United States strengthened its squad with pitchers Nick Martinez and Scott McGough and the powerful outfielder Tyler Austin, all of whom play in Japanese professional ball. But compared to Samurai Japan, which launched former New York Yankees star Masahiro Tanaka on Monday, it’s still an underpowered roster.
Tanaka had full control for three innings in his first Olympics since he was 19 in 2008, but couldn’t get out of the fourth when he gave up three runs and lost a 2-0 lead for Japan.
Koyo Aoyagi, who had a breakthrough season as a starter for the Hanshin Tigers, fought again with relief. The side poor appeared twice in draw games and enabled two runs in Japan’s tournament opener. Austin played in single on Monday before Aoyagi gave up a triple home run on minor league Triston Casas.
“I understood how I would be used (for relief) but I will be set on fire,” said Aoyagi after Monday’s game at Yokohama Stadium. “I did well against Austin during the season, but he was amazingly locked up in international competition.”
The normally high expectations of Japan’s Olympic ball players have to go through the roof on home soil this time around.
While Samurai Japan struggled and fell behind, it was also tougher than previous Olympics as more than a few players showed they can put the nervousness aside and just do it.
Unlike Tanaka and Aoyagi, however, the pitch was solid. The offense, which went through six innings against the Dominican Republic in the tournament opener, has lived up to expectations since winning a ninth in three runs, giving home fans some hope ahead of Wednesday’s semi-finals against South Korea.
South Korea also has a team of professional all-stars from its domestic league and has not lost to Japan at the Olympic Games since 1996. And although Japan defeated South Korea in the 2006 World Baseball Classic semifinals and in the 2009 final, the Olympics are pressure on Japan on another level.
Wednesday’s winner will move into Saturday’s gold medal game, while the loser will get a second chance in Thursday’s semi-finals – likely against the United States.
This means that no matter how much drama we’ve seen so far, more is guaranteed.
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