A determined Japanese outfit took advantage of three errors by their American opponents, riding a five-run fourth inning to a 9-4 semifinal win at the World Baseball Classic on Sunday night.
Japan, which halted a four-game losing streak to the United States and avenged a pair of defeats at last summer's Beijing Olympics, will defend its WBC title against South Korea on Monday at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles (9:30 p.m. ET).
It will mark the fifth time the teams have met at this year's tournament. Korea won gold at last summer's Beijing Olympics and is Japan's biggest baseball rival. Japan won the inaugural WBC in 2006, defeating Cuba in the final.
"Can you believe this? Look at the score. I feel so bad about this," Tom Lasorda, Hall of Fame manager and Classic global ambassador, said from his seat behind home plate.
"I'm very, very disappointed. We had high hopes. This is the second time we were supposed to win. We taught these people the game."
Instead, Japan gave the lessons on American soil.
Boston Red Sox right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka struggled at times in the first 4 2/3 innings but received plenty of offensive support to earn his first win of this year's tournament and sixth in as many starts in WBC play.
Japan's 7-8-9 hitters — Kenji Johjima, Akinori Iwamura and Munenori Kawasaki — accounted for four of their team's 10 hits and drove in four runs.
Leadoff hitter Ichiro Suzuki and Hiroyuki Nakajima, who batted second, combined for three hits and three RBI.
The Japanese bullpen took a 0.67 earned-run average into Sunday's game and allowed two runs (both earned) over the final 4 1/3 innings.
"We didn't play as well defensively," U.S. manager Davey Johnson said. "We made it a ball game through seven innings, and made some mistakes, walked the leadoff hitter in the eighth, and that's not the way you win ball games.
"Some of our pitchers aren't as far along as some of the Japanese pitchers," added Johnson, who played in Japan in the mid-1970s. "When I was in Japan, spring training started Jan. 1. It's a lot of practice. It does give them a head start when you play them in March, but I thought our guys played well."
Houston Astros ace Roy Oswalt was saddled with his first loss of the tourney after yielding six runs (four earned) on six hits in 3 2/3 innings of work.
"I thought he was throwing the ball all right," said Johnson of Oswalt. "I tried to get [John] Grabow up [in the bullpen]. I didn't think it was going to take him so long. It took him longer in the cold weather to get loose. But I still thought he [Oswalt] was throwing good enough to stay in the ball game."
It was a great start for Oswalt and company. In the top of the first inning, Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts took Matsuzaka's second pitch of the game over the centre-field fence for a solo home run before a crowd of 43,630, the second-largest in WBC history and the most on U.S. soil
In the bottom of the inning, Oswalt set down Japan in order, striking out Nikajima.
But the Americans frittered away a 2-1 lead in the fourth. Roberts's error on a Kosuke Fukudome grounder enabled Japan to tie the game 2-2. Four more runs came across in the inning, highlighted by an Iwamura run-scoring triple.
Japan's fans chanted, waved red-and-white flags and pounded orange Thunder Stix during their country's big inning.
Down 6-2 in the eighth, the U.S. scored twice on Japanese reliever Takahiro Mahara. After Ryan Braun doubled and Brian McCann walked, Mark DeRosa brought them home on a two-base hit to left field.
But Japan responded with three runs in the bottom of the inning, with a Derek Jeter throwing error leading to two runs.
Three years ago, the Americans finished eighth among 16th teams and were eliminated 2-1 by Mexico in the second round of the tournament after beating Japan 4-3 during pool play in Anaheim.
"I have no thoughts whatsoever that I have surpassed them," Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said through a translator. "But the American baseball team came to recognize the Japanese team. To some extent, that is something I believe is the result of this."
This time, they came into their first final four appearance hobbled by injuries.
During the second round in Miami, they lost second baseman Dustin Pedroia (left side), first baseman Kevin Youkilis (sprained left ankle, left Achilles' tendinitis) and reliever Matt Lindstrom (strained right rotator cuff). Chipper Jones (right side) was replaced for the semifinal by Evan Longoria.