South Korea returns to championship game

South Korea’s manager took off his hat in disbelief and befuddlement. He was unbelievably excited his team just clinched a spot in the Little League World Series championship game, but he was also shuffling around and searching for someone to celebrate with. He found his pitcher, who jumped into his arms, and that was a good start.

Pitcher Yeong Hyeon Kim clinched the International Championship for South Korea with a game-ending double play, holding off a spirited Japan effort in Seoul, South Korea’s, 2-1 win Saturday afternoon at Lamade Stadium.

After falling 10-0 in a four-inning one-hitter on Wednesday to South Korea, Japan gave everything the champions out of the Asia-Pacific Region could handle. Japan nearly made a late comeback with a run in the fifth inning on Masaumi Ikeuchi’s two-out RBI single. Then in the top of the sixth with one out, Shisei Fujimoto singled. Three pitches later, Masato Igarashi hit a liner at Kim who caught it in his stomach and quickly fired to first base for the game-ending double play.

South Korea clinched a spot in today’s world title game against Hawaii at 3:30 p.m.

“I’m the shortstop so I thought it was a hit so I was like scared to celebrate,” Jeong Hyeon Park, who made a number of MLB-worthy defensive plays, said through an interpreter.

“We lost against them twice. They’re a very good team. During this tournament, we have to share the practice field with Korea and their body sizes are way bigger also they hit for more power and their pitchers throw harder and have a good breaking ball,” Japan manager Hiroyuki Takahashi said through an interpreter. “Something happens during the game, we’re justy trying for good fundamentals.”

Kim, who threw that four-inning one-hitter with 11 strikeouts against Japan on Wednesday, threw 1 1/3 innings of relief, gave up two hits and struck out two to earn the save. He succeeded a dominant effort by starter Ji Hyung Choi, who gave up just three hits and one run in 4 2/3 innings with seven strikeouts and no walks.

Those two were matched by Fujimoto, who struggled in his last outing against South Korea, recording just two outs and giving up four runs on 24 pitches. Yesterday, after a solo home run in the first inning by Choi which was about 280 feet up the left-field hill, Fujimoto settled in and gave up just one hit the rest of the way. But the lefty received some big-time help from his catcher.

“The previous game against Japan, the score was 10-0 but his performance was OK. … I asked Fujimoto about a starting pitcher for today’s game and I asked him, ‘Do you wanna pitch or do you wanna sit out?’ And Fujimoto said, ‘I want to do it.’ That’s why I used him as a starting pitcher,” Takahashi said.

“I think everybody is talking about Fujimoto’s performance. I haven’t told anybody yet, but our catcher, Ikeuchi, he calls our pitches. I don’t give the sign to the catcher. Ikeuchi, he makes all the decisions for the pitches. In the Korean dugout, the sign is shown to the catcher and the catcher shows the pitcher. Our team, Ikeuchi is a big decision guy. The pitcher and catcher both did a good job.”

Japan showed its toughness after coming back from that 10-0 defeat a few days ago. Fujimoto was unfazed by a tough South Korean squad which tagged him early for two runs and two extra-base hits as well as a crowd of 30,000 plus.

“We didn’t expect a 10-0 game today because the Japanese pitcher, we knew he was pitching very well. The first two runs were very good for us,” said Asia-Pacific manager Ji Hee Su, who was an assistant coach on the 2016 International Champion South Korea team which lost to Maine-Endwell, New York, 2-1, in the final, through an interpreter. “I thought we might lose the game after we just got the two runs and we didn’t score anything else. We were very fortunate today to win 2-1.”

Now, South Korea moves on to the world final for the first time since that 2016 loss. It is searching for its fourth title and its first since 2014. It’ll also be the first time the team plays against an American team, which presents different challenges and a different playing style with more explosive offenses.

“We focused on the international teams but we watched them (American teams) on the TV. We saw the two Americans teams in the West and Southeast and they look very strong to us. We can’t guarantee (Sunday). It’s going to be a very hard game for us,” Su said. “But we’re still are going to do our best. We’ll do our best but it’s like any other game. We’re not going to give it special treatment or anything, we just prepare for the final.”

Before its game, Japan took a walk over to Volunteer Stadium to watch the Challenger Division game. This provided some added motivation and some perspective for Japan.

“As a team, we have some pressure because we are defending champs,” Takahashi said. “This morning, we stopped by Volunteer Stadium and watched the Challenger League. We learned from them about what we are. We are healthy and they still were enjoying baseball. We got a lot of power from the Challenger League players. We need to just enjoy baseball during the Little League World Series.”

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