|Korea celebrates their win in Tokyo Dome|
Shohei Otani of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters was dominating in Tokyo Dome, having no hits allowed through six innings while also facing the minimum number of batters (18). This included striking out six consecutive batters and 11 for the game.
After allowing his first hit in the seventh, he was able to get out of the inning unscathed and it was the right call for manager Hiroki Kokubo to pull him knowing it was the third time through the order for the South Korean national team. It appeared that Japan was on cruise control with a 3-0 lead the entire time.
Takahiro Norimoto worked a perfect eighth inning, but that was the downfall which gave Kokubo the idea to make him go two innings. Sure, in theory a starter who's the best on the his team in the Rakuten Golden Eagles should be able to get three more outs.
However, the closer role today takes a special edge to finish a game. Being a closer can't be done on paper as a pitcher needs to have the right mentality to end it.
Kokubo had four different pitchers on his roster who were closers in 2015 with Kazuhisa Makita being an unofficial fifth when he temporarily took over for the Saitama Seibu Lions. He used none of them and stuck with Norimoto as a setup man throughout the tournament.
Norimoto would face four batters allowing three hits and hitting the fourth to load the bases with no outs trying to protect what was now a 3-1 lead.
Yuki Matsui came in when the bases were already loaded and he was arguably squeezed by the umpire when walking his only batter. However, it shouldn't come down to that at-bat when the manager was greedy enough to leave Norimoto in for multiple batters as he couldn't get an out.
He could have gone with Matsui to being the 9th, as he was nearly automatic with Rakuten, even though he will be part of their rotation in 2016. Even former Eagles manager Hiromoto "Dave" Okubo would have a closer take the ninth inning.
There was also Hirokazu Sawamura from the Yomiuri Giants, but he faltered in a closer situation earlier in the tournament during the pool play. Yasuaki Yamasaki of the Yokohama DeNA Baystars was the wildcard candidate, but Kokubo only used him for the 7th and 8th inning in two games.
Hirotoshi Masui, the Fighters' closer, would have been the logical choice to bring in for the ninth inning at the start. He struggled in garbage time against the Puerto Rico giving up a three run homer, but it was all academic. Kokubo might have been discouraged from using him as a result of the out.
Regardless, Kokubo had Matsui only face one batter before putting in Masui with the bases loaded and no outs only ahead by one run, Well-known Fukuoka Softbank Hawks 1B Lee Dae-Ho did damage again with the pivotal two-run single down the left field line and Korea took its only lead of the night after showing no signs of offense the entire game having only two base runners prior to the 9th.
Masui was allowing some hard hit balls, but great defense from Hayato Sakamoto and Shogo Akiyama prevented Korea from breaking this game open.
Japan had one redemption chance in the ninth, but Tetsuto Yamada struck out and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo grounded out with Sho Nakata being the last hope. He got on base with a single and Takeya "Okawari-kun" came in as a pinch hitter for Nobuhiro Matsuda, who was hitless on the night.
It was too late, as Okawari-kun grounded out and Korea pulled off the shocker in the ninth inning. It's easy to point the finger at Norimoto for not recording an out in the ninth against Korea's pinch hitters, but that situation should have have come up when Kokubo had an arsenal of closers on his bench.
Japan deserved to lose this game due to one basic mistake and the manager took responsibility for his decision. They can only look back at what Kokubo did, having a No. 1 starting pitcher take a role he's not familiar with in closing while also coming out of the bullpen.
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