Five Japanese pitchers combined for a six-hit shutout on Saturday as the hosts beat the United States 2-0, securing the first Olympic baseball gold medal for a nation that eats and breathes the sport.
Third baseman Munetaka Murakami gave top-ranked Japan the only run it would need, with a third-inning homer off losing pitcher Nick Martinez.
The U.S. starter limited Japan to just that run in six effective innings. The hosts added an insurance run in the eighth to seal victory at the gold medal match in Yokohama.
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U.S. manager Mike Scioscia praised Japan saying, "They deserved to win,” but also lauded the effort by his side.
“Our team played really under such different circumstances than they usually face back in the States in a normal season. Every game was a Game 7,” said Scioscia, whose mentor, late Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, led Team USA to the 2000 gold in Sydney.
“We got within a couple breaks of winning the gold medal.”
Japan's starting pitcher, Masato Morishita, surrendered just three hits over five innings. He was followed by Kodai Senga, Hiromi Itoh, Suguru Iwazaki and Ryoji Kuribayashi, who completed the shutout.
The U.S. squad, filled with minor leaguers and free agents, put runners into scoring position in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings but failed to bring any home.
Saturday's victory also sealed Japan's rule of both Olympic diamonds, after the hosts defeated the American women last month for softball gold. They also enjoyed an earlier win over Team USA in baseball on Monday.
Baseball had last been contested on the Olympic stage in 2008 before it, along with softball, was brought back at the insistence of yakyuu-loving Japan.
Despite its love affair with America's pastime, Samurai Japan hadn't been a member of the relatively exclusive club of baseball gold medalists: U.S. (2000), Cuba (1992, 1996, 2004) and South Korea (2008).
The American loss denied U.S. third baseman Todd Frazier an incredibly rare diamond double.
"It’s been a great experience, man,” Frazier said of the tournament that ended in U.S. silver. “I can’t say it enough.”
The tournament's end will send second baseman Eddy Alvarez home with a silver, which he can place in the trophy case alongside his speedskating silver from 2014.
“Feels like déjà vu,” Alvarez said of his double silver medals. “It’s just as heavy as the other one. Same color, little different design, but it’s still an incredible journey, an incredible experience.”
The 31-year-old Miami native and son of Cuban immigrants, Alvarez is now one of just three Americans to ever medal in both the Winter and Summer Olympics.
The previous two double-winning Americans were Eddie Eagan, a 1920 boxing gold medalist and 1932 four-man bobsled champ, and Lauryn Williams, who captured 2012 gold in the 4x100 relay and then 2014 silver in the two-woman bobsled.
Alvarez said he was initially disappointed by the loss before being reminded of Team USA's accomplishment.
“My coach had to bring us together and make us snap out of it,” he said. “He yelled at us. ... He basically said, ‘You know, you’re silver medalists.’ And that’s when it kind of hit me.”
This silver-medal-winning U.S. side was composed of minor leaguers allowed to play in the Olympics by their parent clubs and veteran free agents looking to catch the eye of an MLB team. Team USA was one of the last teams to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
With the Olympics happening at the same time as the multibillion-dollar domestic baseball season, MLB has not stopped the season or allowed the game's best players to participate in these quadrennial games.
By contrast, the National Hockey League has regularly interrupted its season to allow the world's best players to compete at the Olympics. The league recently announced its 2021-22 schedule, which includes a break for the winter games.
The U.S. also won gold in men's basketball early Saturday, with Kevin Durant leading a star-studded squad to its fourth-straight Olympic title shortly after the end of the NBA season.