SAN DIEGO – They played to be next into the WBC semis (Korea's got a place on that northbound bus).
They played to duck a dangerous elimination game against the Cubans (not so fast, Japan).
They played because the schedule said so, again.
But more – much more – has come of it. Japan and Korea find each other – and are perhaps drawn to each other, however reluctantly. Over two classics spread across three years, they have played six times, and they might not be done yet.
Japanese icon Ichiro Suzuki said this week he believed the meetings had become fatefully unavoidable.
"There is a destiny," he said. "It's like a girl you said goodbye to and then you bump into the same girl again on the street so many times, because there is a destiny to meet again. Maybe better, might as well get married if we are going to meet this frequently."
Or the whole thing turns nasty and everybody starts trading restraining orders. I'm just saying, it happens.
Either way, they stand out there – whether it be Tokyo or Anaheim or here – and they play nine innings of head-first slides and fist pumps. They play three hours of our-best-nine against your-best-nine, and not our-nine-who-feel-like-it against your-nine-with-one-eye-on-their-contracts.
They're Dodgers-Giants, with batters' box leg kicks.
They're Yankees-Red Sox, but not just for the AL East, for the entire Far East.
Most games they could play on a Little League diamond for all the balls that actually reach a fence. But they play them fierce, and they play them tight, and if you've got nothing else nice to say about the WBC, Bud Selig's little global happening has reintroduced us to a game played with end-to-end speed, defense and integrity.
Remember that game? It's still out there. Remember the game where all the players' bodies looked pretty much the same every spring? It's still out there. The game where a little dedication and dignity were going to have to be good enough?
Well, Korea beat Japan and young ace Yu Darvish 4-1 on Tuesday night. The Koreans did most of their scoring in the first inning, when the freakishly talented Darvish, just 22 and the darling of dozens of big league scouts sitting at field level, lacked command of both his fastball and slider. They turned a couple of critical double plays behind their starter, Jung Bong. And then they held on. They threw strikes and they made plays, and Japan waited and prodded for the opening that never came. Remember that kind of game?
The day after about 9,000 people came to see Mexico play Cuba, even though the game was held a few minutes from a whole nation of Mexicans, more than 15,000 attended the Japan-Korea game. On the huge video screen in left field, the Americans had come from behind to win. Koreans and Japanese, maybe not necessarily fans of either the Americans or Puerto Ricans, clattered their noisemakers in appreciation of a good baseball moment. Then they took their sides – Koreans on the first-base line and Japanese on the third-base line – to watch Korea beat Japan for the fourth time in six WBC games and advance to Los Angeles.
Going on midnight here, Korean closer Chang Yong Lim beat Akinori Iwamura with a fastball, leaving Ichiro on deck (and batting .174 for the tournament) and bringing his teammates to the mound, where they bounced and laughed and took great delight in, for the moment, being through with Japan.
"Their baseball games seem to be closer to American games," Ichiro had said, "and they have big bodies. They play closer to American-style baseball than Japanese baseball."
The Koreans would accept no such suggestion, however, that they were physically superior. It is the Japanese, after all, who field four major leaguers, three of them – Kosuke Fukudome, Kenji Johjima and Iwamura – not in the middle of the order, but at its bottom. And it is the Koreans who were historically later to the game and who now are clearly catching up.
"Our level of focus and team unity is definitely better than Japan's," said Bong, who pitched in the big leagues from 2002 to 2004 and over nine days has allowed one run in 10 2/3 innings to Japan. "Our confidence is at its peak level. We're not even all that big physically. However, when you have confidence, you can do special things."
The Koreans do appear to have struck upon that as a theme, that they will be the underdog here, no matter how many times they outplay their rivals.
"Japan is one of the world's top teams," Korean manager Kim In-sik said, "and they're definitely more talented than we are."
Tatsunori Hara, Japan's manager, replied, "Well, if you want to say that, that's fine. But as far as we were concerned, the spirit, we are one, and we unite together. That's the extent I can say about us."
They could try to settle it all again as soon as Thursday. Should Japan beat Cuba again Wednesday, Japan and Korea would play for seeding purposes.
Yup, that girl again.