YOKOHAMA (Japan News) – For a baseball-loving country like Japan, this was a long overdue victory.
Masato Morishita and four relievers combined on a six-hit shutout and Japan beat the United States 2-0 in the Olympic baseball tournament final on Saturday at Yokohama Stadium.
It was only the second Olympic gold medal in baseball for the team known as Samurai Japan, but the first as an official event on the Olympic program. The other title came at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, when baseball had only demonstration sport status.
“We had a good team and we played a good game,” said manager Atsunori Inaba, who exchanged hugs with his coaches after recording the final and received the victory ceremony in the air.
After Morishita, a right-hander from the Hiroshima Carp, limited the Americans to three hits in five scoreless innings, Inaba made extensive use of his pen to complete the shutout.
Since baseball became an official sport at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, Japan has played the championship game only once, winning a silver medal in Atlanta in 1996.
The IOC decided to give up baseball after the 2008 Beijing Games, but Japan struggled to finish fourth, even though the professional leagues had allowed its players to participate.
Inaba took on the heavy lifting of the professional baseball world at the Tokyo Games, for which baseball was reinstated. He had played at the Beijing Games and was well aware of the disappointment and criticism that accompanied defeat.
When approached to take the post of director, he made a rare call to his father and confided in him about his anguish over the decision. “It could cause problems for the family,” he said. Nonetheless, he accepted the post thinking, “An Olympic debt can only be repaid at the Olympics.”
In order to get the most out of his players, he has created an atmosphere that facilitates communication. During games, hitters and coaches would exchange ideas and look for clues to start the rally. The team has become one. There was the time when Carp clean-up hitter Seiya Suzuki traced a walk that led to a run. Yomiuri Giants key hitter Hayato Sakamoto even suggested running over a runner.
Baseball will again be banned from the Olympics at the 2024 Paris Games. “We don’t know when next time around,” Inaba said, “but we are aiming for the gold medal.”
In the bronze medal match, the Dominican Republic beat South Korea 10-6.
In the end, it was Carp reliever Ryoji Kuribayashi who took the victory.
Securing a two-point lead in the ninth inning, he secured the final on a strikeout at second, then jumped into the arms of SoftBank Hawks wide receiver Takuya Kai, who had rushed towards the mound.
Starter Morishita left the mound after five innings with a one-run lead, and the parade of relievers began. First was the Hawks’ Kodai Senga, who pitched two scoreless innings against the United States on August 2, then Hiromi Ito of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters took over in seventh.
With a runner in the eighth and the US southpaw’s No. 3 hitter, Inaba passed to the Hanshin Tigers’ Suguru Iwasaki who had three consecutive strikeouts. The three have not given up on running the entire tournament as planned for the closest Kuribayashi.
Inaba remained aware of using intermediate relief throwers for this role. “They can be more effective in a role they are familiar with,” said Inaba.
But nothing was set in stone, as Inaba remained flexible depending on the state of the player. “I have a certain plan, but the decisions were made naturally as the tournament went on.”
Ito was a piece of the puzzle.
The rookie and starting right-hander of the Nippon Ham Fighters had been a reliever for the Japan National College team before turning pro. “He throws hard and is not afraid,” said Inaba.
Ito has a powerful fastball and he changes the curve and speed of his cursor. In pre-tournament training camps and exhibition games, Ito has shown that he will be effective in handling crucial situations.
While also only a rookie, Kuribayashi’s ability to secure strikeouts has earned him the role of Closer. As Inaba searched for a winning relief stint, the final pass always went to Kuribayashi, who closed each game when Japan were 5-0.
“Everyone was determined to drop each batter one at a time, and we were able to pull that together to allow zero runs,” said Inaba.
With the right people in the right places, the leader and the players who responded to him paved the way for the gold medal.