YOKOHAMA (Japan News) – It was a long overdue victory for a baseball-loving country like Japan.
Masato Morishita and four rescuers combined a six-hit shutout and Japan beat the US 2-0 in Saturday’s Olympic baseball final at Yokohama Stadium.
It was only the second Olympic baseball gold for the team named Samurai Japan, but initially as an official event in the Olympic program. The other title came at the 1984 Los Angeles Games when baseball was only a demonstration sport.
“We had a good team and we played a good game,” said coach Atsunori Inaba, who hugged his coaches after the final was recorded and tossed the celebratory victory into the air.
After Morishita, a right-handed for the Hiroshima Carp, held the Americans to three hits in five goalless innings, Inaba made extensive use of his bullpen to complete the shutout.
Since baseball was declared an official sport at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Japan had only made the championship game once, taking home a silver medal from Atlanta in 1996.
The IOC decided to drop baseball after the 2008 Beijing Games, but Japan battled for fourth place there despite the professional leagues allowing their players to participate.
Inaba took on the heavy lifting the professional baseball world faced at the Tokyo Games, which baseball was reintroduced to. He had played in the Beijing Games and was aware of the disappointment and criticism that came with the defeat.
When asked to take on the manager’s job, on rare occasions he would call his father and tell him his agony over the decision. “It could cause problems for the family,” he said. Nevertheless, he took the job and thought: “An Olympic debt can only be repaid at the Olympics.”
In order to get the most out of his players, he created an atmosphere that makes communication easier. During the games, thugs and coaches exchanged ideas and looked for clues to get rallies going. The team became one. There was a time when cleaner Seiya Suzuki drew a walk of the carp that led to a run. Key hitter Hayato Sakamoto of the Yomiuri Giants even suggested ambushing a runner.
Baseball will be excluded again at the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024. “We don’t know when the next time will come,” said Inaba, “but we are aiming for the gold medal.”
In the bronze medal match, the Dominican Republic defeated South Korea 10: 6.
In the end, it was Carp Reliever Ryoji Kuribayashi who ended the win.
In the ninth inning, he defended a two-run lead, won the final with a groundout to second base, then jumped into the arms of SoftBank Hawks catcher Takuya Kai, who had rushed to the hill.
Starter Morishita left the hill with a one-run lead after five innings and the helpers’ parade began. First was Kodai Senga of the Hawks, who put down two scoreless innings against the US on August 2nd, then Hiromi Ito of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters took over the seventh.
With a runner in eighth place and the due stroke No. 3 of the left-handers of the Americans, Inaba switched to Suguru Iwasaki of the Hanshin Tigers, who got three straight-outs. The three did not give up a run-all tournament, as it was planned for the closer Kuribayashi.
Inaba was aware of using medium-sized relief jugs for this role. “They can be more effective in a role they are familiar with,” Inaba said.
But nothing was set in stone as Inaba remained flexible depending on the condition of the player. “I have a specific plan, but of course decisions were made as the tournament progressed.”
One piece that fit into the puzzle was Ito.
The rookie right-handed and starter in the Nippon Ham Fighters was a helper on the university’s Japan national team before turning pro. “He throws hard and is fearless,” said Inaba.
Ito has a strong fastball and changes the curve and speed of his slider. During pre-tournament training camps and exhibition games, Ito showed that he would be effective in critical situations.
Despite being just a rookie, Kuribayashi’s ability to score strikeouts brought in the role of the closer player. While Inaba was looking for a victorious season of rescuers, the final baton pass always went to Kuribayashi, who ended every game when Japan went 5-0.
“Everyone was determined to drop each batter one at a time, and we were able to put that together to make zero runs,” said Inaba.
With the right people in the right places, the leader and the players who responded to him paved the way to the gold medal.