“21st consecutive international tournament win, started with a win, ended with a win”
Japanese media erupted in cheers as Samurai Japan won the Asian Professional Baseball Championship (APBC) 2023. They praised the team for winning their second consecutive APBC title, following their World Baseball Classic (WBC) crown in March.
The South Korean baseball team, led by Ryu Jung-il, finished as runners-up in the APBC 2023 final against Japan, losing 3-4 in 10 extra innings at the Tokyo Dome in Japan on Nov. 19.
Japan celebrated in their own dugout. “Samurai Japan, the only team to win all three games in the APBC 2023 qualifiers, defeated their arch-rivals Korea with a walk-off hit in extra innings,” Japanese media outlet Sportichi Annex reported, “winning their second consecutive title after the first in 2017 and taking home 20 million yen (approximately KRW 173 million) in prize money.”
“Since the 2019 WBSC Premier12, ‘Samurai Japan’ has won 21 consecutive international tournaments,” said Hirokazu Ibata, who took over the reins of the team ahead of the APBC and led them to victory in his first tournament. “Japan Baseball started 2023 with a WBC title in March and ended it with an APBC title.”
In the final game of the tournament, South Korea exceeded expectations. In the top of the third inning, with runners on first and second, Noh Shi-hwan (Hanwha Eagles) hit a leadoff double off Japanese starter Tatsuya Imai (Seibu Lions) to give Korea a 2-0 lead.
Kwak Bin Kwak (Doosan Bears) also did his part, going five innings and allowing one run on five hits (one home run) and three walks while striking out six. It was a great pitching performance for Kwak, who was unable to pitch a single game at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, last month due to a bout of gout.
However, South Korea was hampered by its inability to score more runs. With runners on second and third in the top of the fourth inning, Kim Do-young (KIA Tigers) could only manage a fly ball to right field to tie the game with Japan.
Kwak Bin gave up a solo home run to Japan’s No. 4 hitter Shugo in the bottom of the fifth inning to cut the lead to 2-1, and the score was tied at 2-2 in the top of the sixth inning on an error by the second pitcher, Choi Seung-yong (Doosan Bears).
Korea had runners on first and second in the top of the seventh, but Kim Do-young struck out and Yoon Dong-hee (Lotte Giants) grounded out to shortstop. Instead, Choi Jun-yong (Lotte Giants) pitched 1⅓ innings and Choi Ji-min (KIA Tigers) pitched 1⅔ innings of scoreless relief to shut down the Japanese bats and send the game to extra innings.
In the top of the 10th inning, Kim Do-young singled, but Yoon Dong-hee singled up the middle with two outs to retake the lead, 3-2. For Kim, it was unfortunate that she was forced to go from one strike to two strikes due to a questionable call by the umpire.
However, Korea kept its head down in the bottom of the 10th inning of extra innings. Jung Hae-young (KIA Tigers) knelt down 3-4 after a sacrifice bunt by Japan, followed by an outfield sacrifice fly with the bases loaded and the winning run at second.
South Korea had hoped to avenge a 1-2 preliminary round loss to Japan on the 17th and win the title, but they were unable to overcome the Japanese barrier once again following the 2017 invitational and had to settle for the runner-up spot.
“‘Samurai Japan’ defeated South Korea in a thrilling 10-inning extra-inning victory,” said ‘Baseball King,’ adding, “The team fell behind after starter Imai was pulled after allowing two runs (one earned) in four innings, but the pitchers picked up the slack in the fifth inning and caught up with South Korea on Maki’s solo home run in the fifth and Sato’s outfield sacrifice fly in the sixth. In the extra innings, they gave up a single to Yoon Dong-hee, but managed to minimize the damage and win the game in extra innings.”
Another media outlet, Baseball Channel, said, “Japan’s bats created scoring opportunities early on but were unable to capitalize,” adding, “With the air somewhat heavy, Maki, the No. 4 hitter, hit a solo home run with two outs in the bottom of the fifth inning. In the extra innings, Sakakura’s sacrifice fly tied the game, and Kadoki’s three-run shot sealed the dramatic victory.”
Japan Baseball has been undefeated in international competition since the 2015 Premier12 semifinals, where they suffered a 3-4 upset loss to South Korea. After winning the 2017 APBC, 2019 Premier12, 2020 Tokyo Olympics (to be held in 2021), and 2023 WBC in straight sets, the team is at the top of its game, having won the 2023 APBC in straight sets.
Although Korea Baseball had to wait until the 2023 APBC to reach the top of the podium, they deserved to be recognized as a team that fought well despite losing. In particular, the pitching staff performed well, with both the starters and the bullpen being steady.
Korea’s postseason start was delayed due to the KBO’s frequent rainouts this season, which also affected the team’s roster. The LG Twins and KT Wiz, who played the Korean Series through the last seven days, were unable to participate, meaning they were not at full strength. It was especially disappointing that Moon Bo-kyung (LG Twins) and Park Young-hyun (KT Wiz) were unable to join the team.
However, Korea’s baseball team showed its strength under the leadership of Ryu Jung-il. The team fought equally with Japan, who were ranked above us, in both the qualifiers and the final. While we saw the gap between us and Japan remain, we also saw a bright future for Korean baseball.
Players such as Noh Si-hwan, Kim Joo-won, Kim Do-young, Kim Hye-sung, Won Tae-in, Choi Ji-min, and Moon Dong-joo, who will be the mainstays of next year’s Premier 12, gained valuable experience and will be ready for the 2024 season.