Familiar foes headed to finals

LOS ANGELES -- Japan and Korea already have met four times in this World Baseball Classic, carrying an intensity that rivals any matchup in Major League Baseball, including that of the Red Sox and the Yankees.

There is no greater rivalry in all of international baseball, and that is because of intense feelings, politically as well as athletically.

Each time, Japan manager Tatsunori Hara and Korea manager In-Sik Kim chuckled or sighed as the inevitable questions about having to face each other came. By the time the two teams met in San Diego for the fourth time, the two managers had tired of the questions.

Naturally, after Japan's impressive 9-4 win against the United States on Sunday, Hara once again was asked about facing his rivals for the fifth time in this tournament and for the seventh time dating back to the Beijing Olympics. After all, the two now will face each other Monday in the WBC championship game.

"I never thought it would come true that we would be playing them five times," Hara said. "That we were able to come up on this stage together, I really feel great respect for the Koreans. I feel like [Monday] will be the game of the century."

The injury to slugger Shuichi Murata, who was lost to a torn right hamstring that likely will keep him out for two months, was supposed to cripple Japan's lineup. Instead, it has reinvigorated it.

Although the team now lacks a true power hitter, Murata's replacements add elements of contact and speed to the lineup, two traits that are most commonly associated with Japanese ballplayers anyway. Instead of the slow and plodding Murata, Japan now has two speedsters who put considerable pressure on opposing defenses.

On Sunday, Munenori Kawasaki played the role of pest against the United States. Each of Kawasaki's four at-bats were key moments in the game, and all four times, he made contact. In his first at-bat, he bunted toward U.S. third baseman David Wright, who charged the ball and made a great play. But perhaps exhausted from that effort, Wright committed an error on the next play that allowed Ichiro Suzuki to reach base.

Kawasaki had a run-scoring single in the fourth and another single in the sixth, and he reached base in the eighth on Derek Jeter's throwing error that led to three runs, which for all purposes ended the game. Jeter was forced to hurry his throw, which went wide of first baseman Mark DeRosa, because of Kawasaki's speed.

"I don't have any idea of what difference I make to the lineup; I'm just playing," Kawasaki said after the game.

Then he joked about his lack of power -- he's hit only 18 home runs in eight seasons in the Nippon Professional Baseball League.

"The home run is the best result, and I'm always trying to do that," Kawasaki said.

The slight Kawasaki, who spent time at third base Sunday but actually is a shortstop, is an Ichiro clone, and perhaps that is because the two are such good friends. The two train together in the offseason, and Kawasaki wears jersey No. 52, which, of course, is just one off from Ichiro's No. 51.

Kawasaki was such an unknown to the U.S. that he was hardly mentioned in the team's scouting report. The only mention said he was a bunt threat.

"Kawasaki, he was supposed to be at shortstop, but he did play some third base," Hara said. "And within the last month, he managed to make that position his own. He has his own batting style, he uses his legs and [Sunday] he was able to hit the way Kawasaki himself plays baseball, in his own good way."

With the left-handed Jung Keun Bong set to pitch Monday, it's likely Hara will turn to the right-handed Yasuyuki Kataoka, normally a second baseman, to play third base and fill the lineup. Kataoka, who had 50 steals last year for Seibu, is yet another speedy player. Kawasaki will be an important bench player for Japan.

That is, of course, if the Japanese offense can somehow manage to put together any offense against Bong, who has a 0.83 ERA in two starts against Japan in this year's WBC. Bong's success likely can be traced to the fact that most of Japan's best hitters (Ichiro, Kosuke Fukudome, Michihiro Ogasawara, Norichika Aoki) are left-handed.

In a surprise move, it will be Hisashi Iwakuma, the NPB's reigning MVP, and not Yu Darvish, who will oppose Bong. Darvish pitched a scoreless ninth inning against the United States on Sunday. Because his pitch count did not reach 30, he will be available in relief Monday.

"If we didn't win today, there wasn't going to be a tomorrow," Hara said of why Darvish pitched in relief Sunday.

And perhaps most comforting for Hara is that after Monday, there won't be any more questions about facing Korea. Of course, until the two teams meet again.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.