The Samurai, as Team Japan is known at home, started this wild, worldwide ride almost three weeks ago, and sure enough they finished it, throwing the first and last pitches of the second edition of the World Baseball Classic.
But in between those two pitches, baseball wound up the winner, not just Japan with its second title in as many tries.
Competitive play was king in this Classic, with the Japan-Korea rivalry setting the tone all the way up to Monday's final crescendo, a 5-3 win for Japan in 10 innings. The two teams played five times, with Japan winning three games. The final runs tally: Japan 43, Korea 38.
"The fact that the two Asian countries were able to play against each other in the finals is something that we and the Koreans can be proud of," Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said.
Very true, but this was much more than Japan vs. Korea. It was a 16-nation baseball army that marched through March and provided, once again and in different ways than in 2006, a welcome appetizer for Major League Baseball's regular season. And, just as it did in 2006, it showed how large the world of baseball is becoming.
The first pitch came from Japan's 22-year-old phenom Yu Darvish in the early-morning hours of March 5 in the U.S., when Japan got Tokyo Dome rocking and began its title defense with a 4-0 victory over China. The last pitch came in the late-evening hours Monday night at Dodger Stadium, when Darvish -- now serving as Japan's closer -- delivered an unhittable slider for the final out and a championship in extra innings.
In all, there were 39 games played at seven international venues over the course of the tournament, and each of them had a story.
A review of some of the key games along the way:
March 5: China 4, Chinese Taipei 1 -- Less than a year after the Major Leagues made its first trip to the Great Wall, China earned its first big win in international competition.
March 7: Netherlands 3, Dominican Republic 2 -- Three quick runs showed the world the Dutch were in the tourney. Holding off one of the pre-tourney favorites showed they were there to stay.
March 7: U.S. 6, Canada 5 -- With Rogers Centre rocking, the border "friendly" turned into a tense affair down to J.J. Putz's last pitch and bear hug of catcher Brian McCann. Surprisingly, Canada would be out two days later after losing to Italy.
March 9: Korea 1, Japan 0 -- In stark contrast to the 14-2 rout Japan had put on Korea to start what would be their best-of-five series, this seeding game turned into a pitching duel between Jung Keun Bong and Hisashi Iwakuma, who'd meet again in the final.
March 10: Netherlands 2, Dominican Republic 1 -- After the D.R. took the lead in the 11th, the Dutch flipped it around in the bottom half of the inning with the winning run scoring on an error, thus eliminating the D.R. and propelling The Netherlands to the second round.
March 14: Puerto Rico 11, U.S. 1 -- This game was called in the seventh on the mercy rule, as Carlos Beltran homered and Pudge Rodriguez hit a pair of doubles, putting the U.S. up against the wall in embarrassing fashion.
March 15: U.S. 9, Netherlands 3 -- Team USA ended the dream for The Netherlands in a game that saw Jimmy Rollins and Brian Roberts, a late replacement at second base for injured Dustin Pedroia, ignite the offense from the top of the order, and later included some heated words after U.S. pitcher Matt Lindstrom threw a pitch behind Vince Rooi after Lindstrom believed that Bryan Englehardt took too long watching his two-run home run in the eighth inning.
March 16: Venezuela 2, Puerto Rico 0 -- Felix Hernandez, the rising star right-hander for the Mariners, pitched 4 2/3 shutout innings, and Francisco Rodriguez, the closer who signed as a free agent with the Mets this offseason, finished off Puerto Rico's first loss of the tournament with a four-out save, while clinching a spot in the semis for Venezuela.
March 17: U.S. 6, Puerto Rico 5 -- With a wave of David Wright's bat at a pitch low and away, the Mets third baseman sent a sinking liner down the right-field line and two runs across the plate for a victory that set off a wild celebration at Miami's Dolphin Stadium and sent the U.S. to the semis.
March 18: Japan 5, Cuba 0 -- The defending champions met baseball's greatest amateur power in an elimination game, and Japan survived. That left Cuba out of the finals of a major international tournament for the first time since 1952.
March 22: Japan 9, U.S. 4 -- Team USA advanced one more round than in '06, but it turned into one game as Japan earned the right to meet Korea for the title behind Daisuke Matsuzaka.
In the end, Dice-K was named MVP of the tournament, an honor that could have gone to his teammate Iwakuma just as easily.
But one thing they definitely shared afterward: A desire to do it all over again.
"I want to continue to be a player that would be invited to this," Matsuzaka said. "That's how I feel."
Said Iwakuma: "It was the pride of Japan. And if possible, I would like to participate again."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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