You can only imagine the joy and jubilation if cheering, flag-waving spectators had filled Yokohama Baseball Stadium rather than empty seats. Instead of chants, we heard the echo of the foul-ball buzzer.
Baseball is like a national religion in Japan, where the annual high school tournament known as Koshien can draw more than 50% of television viewers and the star players earn instant fame. While the Olympic baseball tournament is mostly an afterthought in the United States, where the focus is on the gymnasts, swimmers and track and field stars, fans in Japan expected the home country to win the gold medal. There would be no celebration for silver.
The home team delivered. Staring down that enormous pressure, a team of Japanese All-Stars — the Central and Pacific leagues paused their schedules to allow the best players to play — beat a ragtag U.S. roster of baseball lifers and minor leaguers 2-0 in the gold-medal game to win its first Olympic gold medal. Five Japanese pitchers delivered a master class in pitching, holding the U.S. team to six hits. The U.S. had just one extra-base hit and only one runner reached third base.
The biggest hero of the day for Japan was 23-year-old starter Masato Morishita, a rising star for the Hiroshima Carp. The Central League’s rookie of the year in 2020, Morishita shut down the U.S. lineup with five scoreless innings, keeping it off balance with a big, old-school, slow curveball, a moving fastball that darted in on the right-handed batters, and a hesitation in his delivery, where he would pause with his front knee frozen in midair. Pressure? Morishita wore a gold-colored glove.
I suspect that glove color will suddenly become very popular with kids across Japan.
Indeed, it was a big day for Japan’s youngest stars.
U.S. starter Nick Martinez, who has pitched in Japan since 2018 after spending four years with the Texas Rangers, locked up with Morishita in a great pitcher’s duel. He escaped a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the fourth inning with a force at home and three-pitch strikeout, screaming and pumping his fist after the whiff. He struck out the side in the fifth.
He left after six innings trailing 1-0, however, as 21-year-old Munetaka Murakami hit an opposite-field home run in the third inning that just cleared the fence in left-center. Despite his youth, Murakami is already in his fourth season with the Yakult Swallows. He hit 36 home runs in 2019, .307 with 28 home runs in 2020, and already has 26 in 83 games this season. It was quiet in the stadium, but a roar certainly serenaded across Japan as he rounded the bases. He’s a player U.S. scouts will be watching closely.
After Morishita exited, Japan emptied its bullpen. The second reliever was Hiromi Itoh, a 23-year-old rookie for the Nippon Ham Fighters, a starter in the regular season, but getting the seventh inning in this game. On a humid evening in Yokohama, he applied a liberal dosage of rosin to his fingers and with every pitch a puff of dust flew off the ball.
Itoh got one of the biggest outs of the game. With A’s prospect Nick Allen on third with two outs, Itoh faced leadoff hitter Eddy Alvarez. The 31-year-old Alvarez, who carried the U.S. flag in the opening ceremonies with basketball star Sue Bird, won a silver medal in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, as part of the U.S. speedskating relay team. When the U.S. beat South Korea to reach the gold-medal game — guaranteeing Alvarez a medal — he broke down in tears, overjoyed at becoming the sixth athlete to win medals in both the Winter and Summer Olympics. Alvarez bounced out to first to end the threat.
Indeed, compared to the star-studded Japanese roster or the U.S. basketball men’s and women’s rosters, the U.S. Olympic baseball roster was mostly players like Alvarez, the Bad News Bears only without Kelly Leak and Amanda Wurlitzer.
Oh, the U.S. team had its own All-Stars — former All-Stars that is, like Todd Frazier, the 35-year-old veteran who was released earlier this season after hitting .086 for the Pirates. Or Scott Kazmir, the 37-year-old lefty who made his first All-Star Game way back in 2006. After not pitching in the majors since 2016, Kazmir made it back to the big leagues this year, starting two games for the Giants. Edwin Jackson is the ultimate lifer. He played for 14 teams in his major league career, a couple of them more than once. He last pitched in the majors in 2019. It’s not easy to give up the sport you’ve played your entire life.
The tension mounted in the late innings. After Tyler Austin’s leadoff single in the eighth, Japan brought in lefty reliever Suguru Iwazaki to face Red Sox prospect Triston Casas. Casas and Allen were the two legitimate position player prospects on the team and he had been the team’s best hitter in the tournament. Iwazaki threw him a 3-2 slider, probably off the plate, and Casas tried to check his swing, but couldn’t. Frazier popped up, yelling in frustration. It might have been his final at-bat as a professional baseball player. Eric Filia grounded out.
Japan added a run in the bottom of the eighth and then turned to another rookie, Ryoji Kuribayashi, to close it out. Kuribayashi has an 0.53 ERA for the Hiroshima Carp, with 18 saves and 54 strikeouts in 33⅔ innings. Like many of the Japanese pitchers who have come over to the U.S. major leagues, he has a nasty split-fingered pitch. He got a strikeout and fly ball before Allen singled with two outs.
It was up to Jack Lopez, the No. 9 hitter in the U.S. lineup. He has been in the minor leagues since 2012, playing for the Royals, Braves and now Red Sox organizations. Born in Puerto Rico, he has played seven seasons of winter ball there. He has played for Idaho Falls and Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas and Omaha and Gwinnett and Worcester. He has seen America. He has never played a major league game.
Kuribayashi was too good. Lopez grounded out to shortstop, the Japanese players rushed the mound and the coaching staff hugged, history secured. As Eduardo Perez said on the broadcast, this was the gold medal Japan wanted above all others.
Then the Japanese team lined up along the third-base line, turned toward the U.S. dugout and bowed.