Sunday, March 12, 2017

Big Sho: Nakata leads Japan past Dutch in 11

The winning rally began with a sacrifice bunt. Really, it did.
Playing for the first time under World Baseball Classic rules designed to prevent long extra-inning games, Japan scored two times in the 11th inning on Sunday to defeat the Netherlands, 8-6, in both teams' second-round opener. After beginning the inning with runners at first and second base under tournament rules, Japan had Seiya Suzuki bunt them over to second and third. Sho Nakata followed by delivering a single to bring both of them home.
The Netherlands was given the same advantage, beginning the bottom of the 11th with runners at first and second, but was unable to score.
Japan remained undefeated in WBC 2017, and now likely needs only one win in two games against Cuba and Israel to advance to the semifinals for a fourth consecutive time. Japan is the only country to make the semifinal round in each of the first three World Baseball Classics.
The Dutch were a surprise semifinalist four years ago -- joining Japan in coming out of the Tokyo pool, despite losing to the hosts twice. It wouldn't be nearly as big a surprise if the Netherlands advances this year, although Sunday's loss makes it likely the Dutch will need to beat both Israel and Cuba in their next two games.
They didn't come close to beating Japan in two second-round meetings four years ago, and in fact gave up six home runs in one 16-4 loss. Sunday's game was much closer.
Kikuchi helps Japan escape: The Netherlands looked ready to rally when Jurickson Profar walked with one out in the seventh and Xander Bogaerts followed with a ground ball seemingly headed for center field. But Japan's second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi dove, backhanded the ball, then flipped it from his glove on the ground to shortstop Hayato Sakamoto. Japan had a forceout, and Ryo Akiyoshi came on to strike out Wladimir Balentien to end the inning.
Senga shuts it down: The Netherlands kept pace when Japan scored in the second inning, and responded with four when Japan scored four in the third. After Japan took the lead again with a run in the fifth, the Dutch opened their half of the inning with an Andrelton Simmons single, followed by a Profar double. But Japanese reliever Kodai Senga, who features a 95-mph fastball and a nasty split, struck out Bogaerts looking and Balentien swinging. Didi Gregorius grounded out to end the inning.
Coco power: The only player in the top six of the Netherlands' lineup who isn't a current Major Leaguer is Balentien, the cleanup hitter known as Coco. Balentien, who played for the Mariners and Reds from 2007-09, has played for Japan's Tokyo Yakult Swallows the last six years, hitting 60 home runs in 130 games in 2013. So his game-tying two-run shot in the third inning was no surprise to the local fans.
Sho time: Nakata was Japan's cleanup hitter at the start of a fall-exhibition series, but struggled and was pushed to the fifth spot behind Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh. Nakata said Japan's hitting coach Atsunori Inaba told him to swing as hard as he can. Now, he has three home runs in four tournament games -- including a three-run shot in the third inning on Sunday.
Japan: The hosts have a day off before they play Cuba on Tuesday at 6 a.m. ET on MLB Network and MLB.TV.
Netherlands: The Dutch, who lost to Israel in a first-round game that only determined seeding, will face the tournament's surprise team again on Monday at 6 a.m. ET on MLB Network and MLB.TV.

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