The World Baseball Classic ended in a blaze of glory Monday night as Asian championship teams from Japan and Korea fought out a nail-biting extra-inning showdown before a frenzied audience of 55,000 spectators at Dodger Stadium.
Japan took a 1-0 lead in the third inning which Korea matched in the fifth on a long home run by Shin-Soo Choo, but Japan soon rebounded in the seventh on a skillfully placed bunt by Ichiro Suzuki, which led to Japan building a 3-1 lead that it held up to the last Korean batter in the bottom of the nineth inning, when a long Korean single drove in two runs, tying the game at 3-3 and sending the game into extra innings.
Japan regained the advantage in the tenth on Ichiro's two run single, increasing its lead to 5-3. The MVP award went to Japan pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, but I thought Ichiro was the most exciting player to watch. Superb relief pitching by Japan's young star Yu Darvish kept the Koreans from recovering in the tenth, wrapping up the title for his country.
This suspense filled finale capped a gripping, surprise packed tournament that rebounded with many shocks and upsets including elimination of the heavily favored Dominican team, sent packing by the Netherlands (!), the emergence of China as a possible future contender, elimination of the Cubans for the first time in fifty years, a gripping contest in Toronto, where the U.S. was barely able to hold off the Canadians, and many other surprises.
The tournament showcased many emerging stars such as China's Ray Chang (from Kansas City) and Japan's Yu Darvish, exposed the U.S. public for the first time to the talents of Cuban pitching ace Pedro Lazo and hitters Yulieski Gourriel, Frederich Cepeda and Yoennes Cespedes; and provided a showcase for many MLB stars like David Wright, Ochiro Suzuki and Ivan Rodriguez, a free agent who landed a spot with the Astros on the strength of the leadership he displayed catching for Puerto Rico.
The World Baseball Classic, while being followed closely in Latin America and Asia, was mostly ignored in the U.S. In an interview with ESPN, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said he would try to increase American interest in the next WBC, to be held in 2013, by prevailing on MLB owners to contribute their best players to the Team USA, as well as taking a more comprehensive national team approach to preparing for the tournament by starting preparations as early as January instead of letting the American players start cold against the Asian teams, who are thoroughly trained and prepared to participate as coherent team units at the beginning of the event.
I believe that the World Baseball Classic is necessary for spreading baseball culture around the world, as well as serving as a showcase for foreign players to gain entry into MLB. If baseball can promote the national stars of other countries, it can gain entry into those markets the same way the NBA has achieved such notable success in China by recruiting their national hero Yao Ming to play for Houston, and in France, where Spurs' Tony Parker is revered.
World Baseball Classic, I salute you!