Japan proves baseball ‘strength’ with first Olympic gold

Sports Tokyo 2020

Japan celebrated their first Olympic baseball title after beating the USA in the final (KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA/AFP)
Japan celebrated their first Olympic baseball title after beating the USA in the final (KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA/AFP)

Yokohama, Japan | AFP

by Andrew MCKIRDY

Japanese baseball has proved its “strength to the world”, manager Atsunori Inaba said Saturday, after beating the United States to claim their first-ever Olympic gold medal in the sport.

Japan, whose previous best was a silver at the 1996 Atlanta Games, edged the US 2-0 in the final to finally bring the gold to a country where baseball borders on a religion.

The Japanese beat the US twice on the way to the title, and Inaba said his players had done it their way.

“By winning the gold medal, Japanese baseball has shown its strength to the world,” said Inaba, who was part of the Japan team that finished fourth at the 2008 Beijing Games -- the last time baseball featured at the Olympics.

“We really wanted to play Japanese baseball. We played twice against the US, and defensive baseball -- centred on the pitchers -- was crucial.”

Starting pitcher Masato Morishita threw five scoreless innings, and four relievers helped keep the US off the board.

Munetaka Murakami hit a solo home run in the third inning off American starter Nick Martinez to give Japan the lead, and Tetsuto Yamada slid home in the eighth to add another run.

Inaba said his team had been preparing for the five years since baseball’s Olympic return was announced.

“All the players had a strong desire to get the gold medal,” he said.

“When they came to the training camp, everyone said that they would play any role. I think that was made us such a good team.”

Major League Baseball had banned its players from appearing at the Games, stripping the teams -- especially the US -- of their biggest stars.

It also meant Japan could not call on Los Angeles Angels phenomenon Shohei Ohtani.

The Americans fielded a team largely made up of minor league journeymen, although former New York Yankee and current free agent Todd Frazier was an exception.

“We expected them to be really good -- they’re the best of the best in their country,” Frazier said of Japan.

“They pitched a hell of a game. It just wasn’t our day at the plate, and there’s no other way around it. No excuses.”

Baseball and softball, which also returned for the Tokyo Games and was won by Japan, have both been dropped from the 2024 Paris Games.

US manager Mike Scioscia called the decision “an incredible oversight”.

“Baseball is played in so many countries around the world, and it continues to keep growing,” said the former Angels manager.

“This is a sport that deserves the stage of seeing the best baseball players in the world come together for an Olympic event. I would hope that someday the IOC would see fit to make baseball a regular sport.”

The Dominican Republic beat South Korea 10-6 earlier in the day to take the bronze medal.

But the day belonged to Japan, who looked in control from the start and rarely allowed the Americans into any threatening positions.

“The US is the home of baseball, and their players were very powerful,” said pitcher Morishita.

“We weren’t able to contain them through strength alone. The manager formed a team and we were able to compete under his leadership.”

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© Agence France-Presse

Tokyo 2020 AFP