YOKOHAMA, Japan — Back after a 13-year absence from the Olympics, the baseball gold medal came down to a showdown between the two biggest baseball countries in the world: the United States and Japan.
And in a close contest on Saturday night, top-ranked Japan prevailed, 2-0, to claim an award that was curiously missing from its list of accomplishments. It was the baseball-mad archipelago’s first gold medal in the six trips to the Olympics since 1992, when the sport was first officially played in the Summer Games.
Before now, Japan had come close just once — winning a silver medal in 1996 — and claiming bronze medals in 1992 and 2004.
On a humid Saturday night at Yokohama Baseball Stadium, Japan outlasted the United States on the strength of its pitching, led by Masato Morishita. The 23-year-old right-hander tossed five scoreless innings and struck out five, vexing his opponents with a low 90s fastball and an array of darting breaking balls.
The cadre of Japanese relievers that followed did much of the same.
Nick Martinez, 31, the United States’ starting pitcher, held his own. But his lone mistake loomed large: a third-inning solo home run surrendered to third baseman Munetaka Murakami. After Murakami made contact, Martinez spun around and grimaced when the ball landed in the center-field seats.
Beyond the blast, the game was a pitchers’ duel. The United States threatened in multiple innings, but Japan’s pitchers wriggled out unscathed each time.
Japan, finally, added some breathing room in the eighth inning, taking a 2-0 lead when Masataka Yoshida singled and Tetsuto Yamada scored from second base following a wild throw home from center fielder Jack Lopez. Before Yamada had sneaked his hand across home plate past a futile tag attempt, Japanese players were bouncing up and down in front of the dugout.
During the Olympics, the Japanese national baseball team was one of the host country’s most followed squads.
Although no fans were allowed inside the stadium, a sizable crowd of national team staff, Olympic volunteers and media members sat in the stands Saturday night to watch the baseball powerhouses play. And much like they had on other game days, a smattering of fans stood outside the stadium to welcome and snap photos of the Japanese players as they arrived by bus in the afternoon.
Olympic baseball is taken seriously here. The country’s top professional league, the Nippon Professional Baseball league, paused its season so that its best players could play in the Summer Games. Yokohama Stadium is home to the BayStars.
Major League Baseball, unlike its Japanese counterpart, carried on and didn’t allow players on its 40-man rosters to compete in the Olympics. Still, the United States squad — made up of unemployed veterans in their late 30s and young prospects still a few steps from reaching the big leagues — was one of the best in the Olympic tournament.
The silver medal in baseball was the first for the United States. It won the gold in 2000 and bronze in 1996 and 2008.
Saturday was the last chance for baseball players across the world to compete on the Olympic stage. Booted from the permanent Olympic program following the 2008 Games, the sport had returned to the program because of host Japan’s ardent love of the sport.
Neither baseball nor softball will return for the 2024 Games in Paris. They are, though, widely expected to return for in 2028 in Los Angeles.
Earlier in the day, the Dominican Republic defeated the 2008 gold medal winners, South Korea, 10-6, to win a bronze medal, the first baseball medal in the country’s history.