A Golden Night for Japan at Premier 12

(ATR) Japan wins the gold medal over South Korea in Tokyo; Mexico takes the bronze and qualifies for Tokyo 2020.

(ATR) Japan wins the gold medal at the second edition of the WBSC Premier 12 competition, dethroning South Korea 5-3 before a boisterous home crowd at the Tokyo Dome on Sunday.

The game began with fireworks from the Koreans, who used home runs from Jung-hoo Lee and Hyung-soo Park to take a 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning. Japan scored once in the bottom of the first and then took the lead in the second inning on a three-run homer from Tetsuto Yamada.

The 4-3 score stayed until the seventh when Japan tacked on an insurance run to make it 5-3, much to the delight of the vast majority of the 44,960 inside Tokyo Dome.

The win over South Korea was the second in as many nights for Japan, following a 10-8 victory in the final game of the Super Round on Saturday. That game featured a lot of reserve players as the managers decided to give some of their frontline players a rest.

But the gold medal game featured the best players from both teams and left little doubt as to the better team in this tournament.

Four years ago, Japan lost in the semifinal to South Korea in Tokyo. The Koreans went on to beat the United States in the final while Japan won the bronze medal by beating Mexico.

Japan’s best players were enlisted to get the job done this time around and they did, led by manager Atsunori Inada.

"Since I became the manager of the Japanese national team two years ago, our aim was to win the championship and become world number one in Premier 12 and in the Olympics next year," Inada said after the game.

"All of the players in the Japanese national team had this strong determination to become world number one and it’s really thanks to all the players on our team and I’m really happy about that."

South Korea will use the silver medal finish as motivation.

"I think I will remember the memory of losing the game today so we can do our best next year in the Olympics so that we can win," said shortstop Ha-seong Kim after the game.

The Koreans are the defending Olympic champions, having won at Beijing 2008 when baseball was last contested at the Summer Games.

Mexico wins bronze, qualifies for Tokyo 2020

In the opening game of the day, Mexico defeated the United States 3-2 to win the bronze medal and qualify for Tokyo 2020.

The USA led 2-1 in the final inning before Matt Clark, who is one of 14 Americans of Mexican heritage on Mexico’s 28-man roster, hit a home run to tie it up and force extra innings. Mexico scored the winning run in the 10th inning on a single by Efren Navarro, who plays for the Japanese club Hanshin Tigers.

It marks the first time Mexico will play baseball at an Olympics and manager Juan Castro said after the game that he and his players "are very proud in being able to participate in the Olympics".

He added that the appearance in Tokyo 2020 could help grow the sport in Mexico, where soccer is dominant.

"The fact that we are able to go to the Olympics is going to be very helpful and a good influence in Mexican baseball because that will invite more young people to participate to play baseball," Castro said.

"In Mexico we have a lot of talented young people and they will start playing baseball so there will be more good baseball players and our Mexican teams will evolve more and get better."

Despite the tough loss, the United States still has a chance to make the 2020 Olympics when it hosts a qualifying tournament in March in Arizona.

USA manager Scott Brosius, in answer to a question fromAround the Rings, said "My sights are really not on March right now, still hurting for the guys on this team… a tough loss… but no question the next round playing at home in our time zone on our home fields will definitely be something to look forward to."

There should be plenty of competition for the United States, since Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela are among other strong baseball countries also seeking a spot in the Olympics.

Two places remain in the six-team tournament next summer. Like Mexico, South Korea qualified through the Premier 12, joining the hosts Japan and Europe/Africa qualifier Israel.

Written and reported by Gerard Farek in Tokyo

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