Japan is nearly through to the second round of the World Baseball Classic after a pair of wins that hardly could have been more different.
Sho Nakata's seventh-inning solo home run broke a 1-1 tie and sent the hosts to a 4-1 win over Australia on Wednesday, a night after Japan had 14 hits in an 11-6 opening win over Cuba.
Japan has thrilled a fan base that has filled Tokyo Dome two straight nights to watch the ballclub they know as Samurai Japan, a team that has advanced at least as far as the semifinals in each of the first three World Baseball Classics. While the Japanese haven't clinched a spot in the second round, they can clinch with a Friday win over China or even earlier if other results go their way.
Australia could still join Japan in the second round. Wednesday's loss came in the Aussies' first game in the tournament. They'll play China on Thursday (5 a.m. ET) and have a Friday meeting (10 p.m. ET Thursday) with Cuba.
Catcher Allan de San Miguel's second-inning home run gave Australia an early lead, and starting pitcher Tim Atherton was able to hold the slim advantage into the fifth inning. But Atherton departed after two hits to start the fifth, and Nobuhiro Matsuda, the star of Japan's opening victory, tied the game with a sacrifice fly off reliever Lachlan Wells.
It stayed tied until the seventh, when Australian reliever Matt Williams hung a curveball on the first pitch he threw, and Nakata deposited it over the left-field wall. At that point, Nakata was the only Japan starter without a hit in the tournament.
"I felt he was going to hit sooner or later," Japan manager Hiroki Kokubu said. "Hitting behind [cleanup man Yoshitomo] Tsutsugoh, he was always a key hitter for us."
Tsutsugoh, who homered in Tuesday's opener, added to Japan's lead Wednesday with a two-run home run in the eighth.
Australia had just one hit out of the infield after de San Miguel's homer.
"I thought we played great," Australia manager Jon Deeble said. "In the seventh inning, it's a 1-1 ballgame."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Nakata connects: At an international tournament two years ago, a Major League scout told Kaz Nagatsuka of the Japan Times that Nakata "swings like the Americans do." It hasn't always helped. While he hit .385 in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, all six of his hits were singles. Nakata did hit 25 home runs and drive in 110 runs in helping the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to the Japanese title last year, but he was 0-for-6 in the WBC '17 when he came to the plate in the seventh inning Wednesday. One big swing changed the story of his tournament.
One strike is enough: Japan starter Tomoyuki Sugano reached his pitch limit with one out in the fifth, forcing Kokubu to go to the bullpen with two on and one out in a one-run game. Kokubu chose left-hander Toshiya Okada, and it looked like a disaster when Okada's first six pitches missed the strike zone. But with the bases loaded and a 2-0 count on James Beresford, Okada escaped with a ground-ball double play.
Kokubu noted that catcher Seiji Kobayashi had gone to the mound just before the double play to give Okada a breather.
"That was a big point in the game," Kokubu said.
Atherton's audition: Atherton's immediate goal is to help Australia advance to the second round, and another goal is to win a gold medal in the 2020 Olympics. But the 25-year-old right-hander could also get back on a path for the Major Leagues, after labrum surgery in October 2015 that cost him the '16 season. Atherton, who pitched five seasons in the Minor Leagues with the Twins and A's before he got hurt, looked healthy and strong in allowing Japan just one run on four hits in four-plus innings. It was an impressive showing against a lineup that scored 11 runs the night before against Cuba.
"This is amazing for me," said Atherton, a free agent hoping to sign with either an MLB team or one in Japan. "That's my job interview." More >
Unexpected power: In 11 Minor League seasons with the Twins, Orioles and Royals, de San Miguel has hit a total of 31 home runs. No wonder he initially stopped at second base when his opposite-field shot cleared the right-field wall in the second inning.
An impressive Twin: Wells, who just turned 20 last month and is ranked the Twins' No. 26 prospect by MLBPipeline.com, made a big impression when he came on in relief for Australia. While Wells allowed Japan's game-tying sacrifice fly, he ended up facing six batters and retiring all of them, working through the top four hitters in Japan's lineup and striking out two of them.
"This kid's got a great future," Deeble said. "I think he's going to pitch in the big leagues." More >
QUOTABLE "Both the Netherlands and Israel are tough teams to compete against. That's how I feel right now." -- Kokubu, after learning that those two teams have qualified out of Pool A for the second round at Tokyo Dome
WHAT'S NEXT Japan: Japan will work out at Tokyo Dome on Thursday, in preparation for its final scheduled first-round game, Friday (5 a.m. ET) against China.
Australia: Australia is back in action Thursday (5 a.m. ET) at Tokyo Dome against China, with Tigers left-hander Travis Blackley on the mound. Right-hander Kwon Ju is the scheduled starter for China.