Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Japan on verge of return to Classic semis

Japan is ready for a trip back to the World Baseball Classic semifinals.
The spot isn't clinched yet, but Tuesday's 8-5 win over Cuba put Japan clearly in control of Pool E. Japan can finish it off with a win over Israel on Wednesday at 6 a.m. ET on MLB.TV and MLB Network, and even a loss to the Israelis wouldn't eliminate Japan from the tournament.
While the Japanese are undefeated through five games at Tokyo Dome, their first two second-round games have been tight to the end. They needed 11 innings to get past the Netherlands, 8-6, on Sunday. Japan had to come from behind three times to beat Cuba on Tuesday, finally going ahead when pinch-hitter Seiichi Uchikawa's sacrifice fly brought home an unearned run in the eighth.
Uchikawa was part of Japan's team that lost to Puerto Rico in the 2013 semifinals. Japan won the World Baseball Classic in both 2006 and '09, and the '13 defeat has stuck with the Japanese players the past four years.
"I had big regrets in 2013," Uchikawa said. "The chemistry of our team now is very good. I hope we come out of here with a 6-0 record and go back to the United States [for the final round at Dodger Stadium]. That's what I'm hoping."
Tetsuto Yamada hit two home runs and scored four runs for Japan, and Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh had three hits and drove in two runs.
Cuba is 0-2 in the second round and faces a quick turnaround for an 11 p.m. ET game on Tuesday (noon local time Wednesday in Tokyo) against the Netherlands. Even a win over the Dutch wouldn't guarantee the Cubans a chance to move on. They would need to wait for the result of the Japan-Israel game.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Yamada leads the way: Yamada was 3-for-17 in Japan's first four games at WBC 2017. But after watching him take batting practice Tuesday, Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo put Yamada back in the leadoff spot. It worked, as Yamada reached base four times and scored four runs. He led off the first inning with a home run, doubled in the third, walked in the fifth and homered again after Uchikawa's sacrifice fly in the eighth.
"I told the coaches he's going to hit tonight, and he just hit." Kokubo said. More >
Uchikawa wins it: Uchikawa was a regular for Japan in the World Baseball Classic in both 2009 and '13, but he's a 34-year-old bench player this time around. Kokubo said he told him to be ready to pinch-hit in the eighth if Japan got a runner in scoring position, and he came up in a 5-5 game with runners at first and third and one out. Uchikawa's long fly ball would have fallen foul, but 20-year-old right fielder Victor Victor Mesa caught it.
"I was thinking, 'Please catch it, please catch it,'" Uchikawa said. "In that situation, scoring a run or not scoring is a big difference. But if I'd had an RBI single, it's a better story."
Cespedes sits: WIth Yoelquis Cespedes (half-brother of Yoenis) 0-for-6 in the past two games, Cuba manager Carlos Marti opted to start Mesa in right field against Japan. The switch paid off when Mesa came up with two outs, the bases loaded and the game tied at 2 in the fourth inning. Mesa's two-run single gave Cuba the lead. Mesa's father is former Cuban star and manager Victor Mesa, but he's known as Victor Victor because his older brother is Victor Jr. Marti said Mesa will be back in right field Wednesday.
Good news for the Dutch: The Netherlands didn't have a game Tuesday (local time), but the Dutch had to be happy to see Cuba use up multiple pitchers in its game against Japan. Yoennis Yera, a key left-handed reliever, threw 35 pitches. By tournament rules, he now can't pitch against the Netherlands. Miguel Lahera, a key right-hander, also went past 30 pitches against Japan and won't be available.
"I understand we have to win [against the Netherlands], but we still have two of the best pitchers from the Cuban league available," Marti said.
QUOTABLE
"If we beat Israel, we won't have to worry about any tiebreakers, and we go to Los Angeles. So we want to win." -- Kokubo
WHAT'S NEXT
Cuba: Four years after missing the semifinals because of two second-round losses to the Netherlands, Cuba faces a must-win game against the Dutch at 11 p.m. ET on Tuesday. Right-hander Lazaro Blanco starts for Cuba, with 36-year-old left-hander Diegomar Markwell going for the Netherlands.
Japan: The Japanese will face Israel in their final scheduled second-round game, Wednesday at 6 a.m. ET. Right-hander Kodai Senga, who has appeared in relief in two games, makes his first start of the tournament for Japan. Right-hander Josh Zeid, who has been Israel's closer in the first five games of the tournament, will get the start Wednesday.

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