A confident Australia team easily got by China, 11-0, on Thursday at Tokyo Dome, setting up a crucial matchup with Cuba in the World Baseball Classic on Thursday night.
The Australians didn't make it past the first round in any of the first three tournaments, and some of the team's older players are still smarting from a 5-4 loss to Cuba that cost them a chance in 2009. Now, with an experienced team and the momentum from Thursday's victory, they believe this is the time to break through.
"I think we're in this with a massive chance," Australia manager Jon Deeble said. "I think this is our chance to win, and the players believe."
Australia's win over China eliminated the Chinese team from the WBC 2017 and sent host Japan to the second round. The winner of the Australia-Cuba game, scheduled for 10 p.m. ET on Thursday, will join Japan in the second-round pool that begins Sunday at Tokyo Dome.
While the Cuba game always loomed, the Aussies didn't take China lightly. Deeble chose to start Travis Blackley, a 34-year-old left-hander with 82 games of Major League experience. When Australia took an early 4-0 lead, Deeble removed Blackley after 48 pitches to preserve his eligibility to possibly start the opening game of the second round.
Blackley got Australia two outs into the fifth inning and allowed just two hits, neither of which left the infield. Luke Hughes gave Australia a lead with a two-run home run in the third inning, and he later added a two-run double. When James Bereford extended Australia's lead to double digits with his eighth-inning grand slam, the tournament's early-termination rule came into effect and the game ended after eight innings.
Quickly, the Australians turned their attention to Cuba.
"Destiny's in our hands," Hughes said. "We're excited and look forward to the challenge."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Blackley delivers: Deeble sent Blackley to the mound expecting to let him approach the 65-pitch single-game limit for the first round. But Blackley's efficiency and Australia's early lead changed the strategy, and Deeble began thinking about a possible Sunday game to begin the second round. By holding Blackley to 48 pitches, Deeble made him eligible to start Sunday.
"I was a little surprised to see him come out [to the mound]," Blackley said. "I was hoping to get through the fifth inning. Hopefully that will come in the second round now." More >
Hughes hits it hard: Hughes hasn't played in the Major Leagues since the A's released him in July 2012. He's played the past five years with the Perth Heat in the Australian League, where he homered three times in 24 games in the just-completed season.
A name to remember?: China's starter was 21-year-old Kwon Ju, who grew up in Korea and plays for the KT Wiz in the Korea Baseball Organization. He gave up three hits in three innings, including Hughes' two-run home run, but scouts suggest he could project as a back-end starter in the Major Leagues someday.
Triple threat: Deeble made a lineup change Thursday, inserting 31-year-old Trent D'Antonio in the leadoff spot. D'Antonio, who played three seasons in the Marlins' organization without making it past Class A, made the move look good with a two-run triple in the fourth inning. D'Antonio was helped by China center fielder Zhenghong Lu, who tried to dive for the ball and saw it get by him.
QUOTABLE "We've had success against Cuba before. They don't scare us." -- Deeble
"We just didn't show up. I'm disappointed. I thought we would make a better showing. I just told the guys I was expecting more out of them. This is a great tournament and we're trying to survive, keep this going. And the odds are not in our favor." -- John McLaren, China's manager
WHAT'S NEXT China: Retired Major Leaguer Bruce Chen is expected to return to the mound in relief Friday (5 a.m. ET) for China's final game against host Japan. Right-hander Quan Gan will start. Right-hander Sho Takeda starts for Japan.
Australia: The Aussies will start Tigers right-hander Warwick Saupold on Thursday night (10 p.m. ET) against Cuba, in a game that will determine which team advances to the second round. Ace right-hander Lazaro Blanco starts for Cuba.