Japan ended one 25-year drought on Monday against the United States and now looks to end another, against defending champion South Korea, in the quest for its first gold medal since baseball became an official Olympic sport.
For the first time since the 1996 Atlanta Games, Japan won an Olympic baseball game against the United States, coming from behind to win 7-6 in their Tokyo Olympic quarterfinal.\
For a gold-medal favorite stacked with top domestic pro stars, Japan shouldn't need dramatic late rallies, but ever since the Olympics allowed pros to compete in 2000, Japan's pro-powered squads have consistently disappointed.
American teams of minor league prospects and older former major leaguers beat Japan once in 2000 and twice in 2008, while Japan's pro stars have been beaten by South Korea four times in those two Olympics. The only time Japanese pros have lifted an Olympic medal was 2004, when Japan's elite stars managed a bronze in a tournament without the United States or South Korea.
For the Tokyo Olympics, the United States bolstered its squad with pitchers Nick Martinez and Scott McGough and slugging outfielder Tyler Austin, all starring in Japanese pro ball. But it's still an underpowered squad compared to Samurai Japan, which started former New York Yankees star Masahiro Tanaka on Monday.
Tanaka was in complete control for three innings in his first Olympics since he was a 19-year-old in 2008, but couldn't get out of the fourth, when he surrendered three runs and blew a 2-0 Japan lead.
Koyo Aoyagi, having a breakthrough season as a starter for the Hanshin Tigers, struggled again in relief. Entering twice in tie games, the side-armer allowed two runs in Japan's tournament opener. On Monday, Austin singled before Aoyagi surrendered a three-run home run to minor league prospect Triston Casas.
"I've understood how I would be employed (in relief), but I am getting lit up," Aoyagi said after Monday's game at Yokohama Stadium. "I do well against Austin during the season, but in international competition, he was amazingly locked in."
The normally high expectations for Japan's pro Olympic ballplayers must be going through the roof this time on home soil.
Although Samurai Japan has struggled and fallen behind, it has also been more resilient than in previous Olympics, with more than a few players showing they can set aside the jitters and just execute.
Other than Tanaka and Aoyagi, the pitching has been solid, however. The offense, which fumbled its way through six innings against the Dominican Republic in the tournament opener, has been playing up to expectations since a three-run ninth won that game, giving home fans some hope ahead of Wednesday's semifinal clash with South Korea.
South Korea, too, fields a team of professional all-stars from its domestic league, and also hasn't lost to Japan in the Olympics since 1996. And though Japan beat South Korea in the 2006 World Baseball Classic semifinal and the 2009 final, the Olympics are pressure at another level for Japan.
Wednesday's winner will advance to Saturday's gold medal game, while the loser will get a second chance in Thursday's losers' bracket semifinal -- likely against the United States.
This means that regardless of how much drama we've seen so far, more is guaranteed.