Japan tops Korea to take pool crown

Japan tops Korea to take pool crown

SAN DIEGO -- And now, let the real games begin.

The Japanese are the top seed from Pool 1 of the World Baseball Classic by virtue of their 6-2 victory over Korea at PETCO Park on Thursday night. They play Team USA on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET at Dodger Stadium for the right to ascend to the finals and defend their 2006 title.

The likely starters are Daisuke Matsuzaka for Japan and Jake Peavy for the U.S. Runner-up Korea plays Pool 2 winner Venezuela on Saturday night at 9 ET. with Suk Min Yoon expected to match Carlos Silva.

"I'm very excited to play against the American baseball team," Japanese manager Tatsunori Hara said. "When I started watching the Major Leagues, I was very impressed. We need to catch up with the Major Leagues, and we need to go beyond that. That was my education and my circumstances about how I learned to play baseball. That was my baseball.

"I have a great deal of respect for American baseball. And here is a great opportunity right in front of me. I'm so excited about that."

Japan took the fourth meeting of this Classic from their Far East rivals, scoring three runs in the eighth inning to snap a 2-2 tie on a quartet of singles, the winning run coming home on a line-drive single off the bat of pinch-hitter Michihiro Ogasawara.

"That was a tense moment," said Ogasawara, who hit for Seiichi Uchikawa with runners on first and third and no one out. "The opportunity was right there, and I walked right into it. I was tenacious, and I was able to produce something in that at-bat."

The teams have split those four games this month, but the Koreans still hold a 4-3 edge against the Japanese over the course of the first two Classics, although Japan defeated Korea in a single-elimination semifinal game three years ago on its way to the inaugural championship.

There is certainly the possibility that the teams could meet again in Monday's championship game at Dodger Stadium.

"There is that possibility," Hara said. "Of course, in the semifinal, Japan has to beat the U.S. team, and that's something we need to focus on."

Japan took an early 2-1 lead on Thursday night, scoring twice in the second inning on a homer by Uchikawa and Yasuyuki Kataoka's RBI single.

The two runs wiped out Korea's 1-0, first-inning edge fashioned on a leadoff single by Keun Woo Lee and Hyun Soo Kim's RBI double into the left-field corner.

Korea tied the score in the seventh on Bum Ho Lee's third homer of the Classic. But the tie was short-lived, as Japan rallied the very next inning against two Korean relievers and then added the final run in the ninth on a single by Norichika Aoki.

The Japanese had clinched a berth in the semifinals on Wednesday night by eliminating the Cubans in a 5-0 victory. So, Thursday's Korean rematch smacked of anticlimax, Hara said. Korea clinched its berth by beating Japan, 4-1, on Tuesday night.

"Compared to [Wednesday], when we learned we were advancing to Los Angeles, this was after the fact," Hara said. "The players and myself were flat psychologically."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.