Japan manager Hiroki Kokubu was concerned his team would feel nervous in Tuesday night's World Baseball Classic opener.
The nerves may have showed, as Japan fought off three late Cuban rallies in an 11-6 win that thrilled a sellout crowd at Tokyo Dome. Nobuhiro Matsuda led the way for Japan with four hits, including a three-run home run, but the Cubans scored five late runs and even left the bases loaded in the ninth inning.
"I've never felt so much pressure," said Kokubu, who was managing in the World Baseball Classic for the first time. "I didn't get calm until maybe the fifth inning."
It was in that fifth inning that Japan scored five times to take a 7-1 lead, with Matsuda's home run the biggest blow. While the Cubans came back with three seventh-inning runs, a two-run home run from Yoshitomo Tsutsugo in the bottom of the inning restored a five-run edge.
The team known here as Samurai Japan has reached the semifinals each of the first three times the tournament has been played, winning the championship in both 2006 and '09. The Japanese were disappointed by their semifinal loss to Puerto Rico in 2013, and Kokubu wanted a strong showing in Tuesday's opener to set his team on track to reclaim the title this year.
Cuba figured to present Japan's biggest challenge in Pool B, which also includes China and Australia. Some of the Cuban media questioned manager Carlos Marti's decision to start Noelvis Entenza against Japan, and Entenza didn't make it out of the second inning. Marti used five more pitchers and Japan scored against all five.
"Our pitching staff was not as we wanted it to be," Marti said. "As far as our offense, yes we were satisfied to score six runs off Japan's pitchers. The Japanese pitchers are solid."
While it wasn't a great night for Cuba, 19-year-old right fielder Yoelkis Cespedes made an impressive World Baseball Classic debut. Cespedes, whose older half-brother Yoenis plays for the Mets, doubled and scored Cuba's first run in the third inning, then singled in the seventh and again in the ninth.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Matsuda powers Japan: Even though he has 62 home runs over the past two seasons for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, Matsuda batted eighth in Kokubu's opening night lineup after playing poorly in Japan's pre-tournament exhibition games. It all worked out for the hosts, because Matsuda singled and scored Japan's go-ahead run in the fourth inning. His fifth-inning home run gave Japan a 6-1 lead.
"Today I was so focused, and I was very pleased with what I did," Matsuda said. More >
Yamada drives in one (but not two): Tetsuto Yamada appeared to have given Japan a 3-1 lead when his fourth-inning drive reached the seats in right field. But third-base umpire Cory Blaser quickly signalled fan interference, and replay confirmed that a fan had reached over the fence to catch the ball. Instead of a two-run home run, Yamada was credited with an RBI double. The inning ended with Japan leading 2-1, but only because Cuban center fielder Roel Santos robbed Norichika Aoki with a sliding catch in left-center field.
Despaigne feels right at home: Cuban left fielder Alfredo Despaigne got a loud ovation in the pregame introductions, because he has played in Japan for the past three seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines. Despaigne looked comfortable, and his seventh-inning home run sparked a three-run rally that gave the Cubans a chance at a comeback.
Turning defense into offense: Japan scored a first-inning run when Aoki doubled and Tsutsugo followed with a two-out single. But Tsutsugo said the rally really began in the top of the first, when a sliding stop from second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi started a double play that kept Cuba from scoring.
"Kikuchi made a great play, and then Aoki set up the great chance to score," Tsutsugo said. "I could get my hit by riding the momentum from them."
QUOTABLE "It was a bit difficult for me to get adjusted to the strike zone, and I had a few bad pitches. I struggled with the location of offspeed pitches, too. I'd like to do better next time." -- Ayumu Ishikawa, who needed 23 pitches to get through the first inning, but allowed just one run on two hits in four innings
"We'll try to win the last two games. Otherwise, we'll be eliminated, and that's not something I want." -- Marti
WHAT'S NEXT Cuba: It's a quick turnaround for the Cubans, with their game against China scheduled for 10 p.m. ET on Tuesday. Marti named right-hander Vladimir Banos his Game 2 starter. Bruce Chen, the longtime Major League left-hander, will start for China.
Japan: The hosts will be back in action Wednesday, with a 5 a.m. start against Australia. Right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano will start for Japan, with right-hander Tim Atherton on the mound for Australia.
If you were to poll the globe prior to the World Baseball Classic, Korea would have been one of the last countries many would've expected to start the tournament with two losses. But that's exactly the position the Pool A host country and former favorite finds itself on Tuesday, after a 5-0 defeat at the hands of the Netherlands in front of a stunned crowd at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul.
Jurickson Profar and Randolph Oduber launched two-run homers and Andrelton Simmons drove in a run and scored another in support of five pitchers for a Dutch team looking to advance out of pool play for the third consecutive World Baseball Classic. Now nearly a decade removed from its global coming-out party in 2009, the Netherlands entered the tournament a trendy favorite after finishing fourth overall in '13.
Which is why Tuesday's matchup was billed as a powerhouse matchup: An early-tournament treat between two teams with legitimate championship chances. But Korea's hopes are in grave danger now after two losses in two days on its home soil. Korea lost to Classic rookie Israel in the tournament opener. The top two teams will advance to the second round.
Looking to start their tournament strong, the Netherlands handed the ball to former Major League starter Rick van den Hurk, who spent the past two seasons pitching in Japan. Van den Hurk allowed three hits and walked two over four shutout innings. Diegomar Markwell, Shairon Martis, Tom Stuifbergen and Loek van Mil combined to limit Korea to just three hits over the final five frames.
"We had to play our 'A' game today to come out on top, and we did. We pitched a very good game," Netherlands manager Hensley Meulens said. "The Korean team is still tough. They didn't get much hitting today, because our pitchers were on their game today."
Korea, which finished in the top three in the first two World Baseball Classics but didn't advance out of pool play in 2013, scored one run over its first two games, a span of 19 innings.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED MLBers lead the Dutch: The strength of the Dutch roster comes from its core of talented Major League middle infielders: Xander Bogaerts, Profar, Simmons, Didi Gregorius and Jonathan Schoop. Meulens had to get creative to get them all in the lineup, sticking Profar in center field, Bogaerts at third and Gregorius at designated hitter. But it paid off. Simmons, Profar and Bogaerts began the game with consecutive hits -- Profar's a two-run homer -- and Simmons drove in another run in the second with a double to give the Netherlands an early 3-0 lead against losing pitcher Kyu Min Woo.
"We had a meeting before the game today," Profar said. "I had a chance to study the pitcher a little bit, just try to follow Simmons. Luckily, I got a good pitch and put on a good swing."
Both sides of the ball: Those big leaguers flashed the leather as well to help the Netherlands keep that early lead. The former Platinum Glove winner Simmons snared a sharp grounder for the game's first out and started a nifty double play with Schoop two innings later to help starter van den Hurk out of a jam. Profar and Bogaerts handled all their chances at their new positions. More >
Slumping sluggers: Korean manager In-Sik Kim made examples of sluggers Tae-Kyun Kim and Dae-Ho Lee after Korea's loss to Israel in Game 1, saying "Today, our No. 3 hitter and No. 4 hitter failed their mission. That's why we had just only one run." Lee managed an early single for his first hit of the Classic on Tuesday, but for the most part, the heart of the lineup went silent again. Kim and Lee have combined to go 1-for-16 with four strikeouts and nine left on base over the first two games. More >
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS Martis, the Dutch reliever who pitched briefly for the Nationals and Twins earlier in his career, threw a scoreless inning -- 11 years after first appearing in the tournament. Just a teenager at the time, Martis.threw a seven-inning no-hitter in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006.
WHAT'S NEXT Korea: The Koreans are off on Wednesday before they play their final game of pool play on Thursday against Chinese Taipei. First pitch is scheduled for 4:30 a.m. ET.
Netherlands: The Dutch can all but lock up a second-round slot with a win against Chinese Taipei, which lost 15-7 to Israel in its opener, Wednesday at 4:30 a.m. ET. Right-hander Jair Jurrjens, a former All-Star with the Braves, gets the ball for the Netherlands.
The 2017 World Baseball Classic already has one of its biggest surprises in Israel, which beat Chinese Taipei, 15-7, on Tuesday at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea, in the second game of the tournament. With its second win in as many days, Israel is in prime position to advance to the next round.
Israel wasted no time taking control of the game, coming out of the gate with four consecutive hits and scoring four runs in the top of the first inning.
Ryan Lavarnway added a two-run home run in the third inning and Nate Freiman tied a bow on the victory with a three-run shot in the ninth as Israel's balanced offense combined for 20 hits.
Chinese Taipei briefly closed the gap in the bottom of the sixth, scoring three runs to cut Israel's lead to 6-3. But Chinese Taipei's bullpen faltered in the top of the seventh as the Israelis pulled away with a five-run inning.
Playing in its first Classic, Israel is 2-0 in Pool A, having beat host Korea, 2-1, in 10 innings on Monday. Israel can win Pool A if it beats the Netherlands on Wednesday (10 p.m. ET). The top two teams from each of the four pools advance.
While Israel has enjoyed early success as a tournament darling, manager Jerry Weinstein wants his club focused on the next game, not the next round.
"One of the goals is to not put the cart before the horse," Weinstein said. "We're not in the second round yet. We're preparing for the game with the Netherlands and that's what we're thinking about right now. My experience has been that when you start getting ahead of yourself, you get out in the future, you're not taking care of the present. We need to take care of what we're doing here right now and when we know we're going to be in next round, then we'll start talking about the next round."
Israel once again benefitted from a strong performance from its starting pitcher. Corey Baker fired 4 2/3 scoreless innings, scattering three hits and striking out three. The 27-year-old right-hander is in the Cardinals' organization and reached Triple-A last season.
Chinese Taipei saw its offense come alive with four runs in the ninth, but the game was already out of reach by then.
Israel had 10 different players record a hit, including four players with three hits and two others with multiple hits. Freiman drove in four runs, Tyler Krieger drove in three, and Ike Davis and Lavarnway each contributed two RBIs.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Early offense: The Israelis chased Taipei starter Chun-Lin Kuo from the game before he could secure his third out, opening the top of the first with four straight hits and tagging Kuo for four runs in the frame.
Davis and Krieger each delivered two-run singles. Davis recently signed a Minor League deal with the Dodgers and Krieger is ranked as the Indians' No. 18 prospect by MLBPipeline.com.
"I just also think it was important, because last night was such an emotional game and a stressful game; to get out of the gate with high energy and get on top early, so that was good," Lavarnway said.
Captain comes through: Chih-Sheng Lin, selected as the team captain for Chinese Taipei, put his team on the board with a two-run double in the sixth. Lin has said he plans to retire from the national team after the Classic.
QUOTABLE "You know, for us, or for me, this is a huge deal to help possibly maybe kick‑start baseball in Israel. It's not as big as we'd like, and I think we can maybe change that with what we're doing." -- Davis, on growing the game in Israel
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS Israel entered WBC '17 ranked No. 41 in the world, according to the World Baseball Softball Confederation, and has already beaten the No. 3 (Korea) and No. 4 (Chinese Taipei) ranked teams.
WHAT'S NEXT Israel: Next up for Israel is its final game of pool play, against the Netherlands on Wednesday night. After beating Pool A host Korea and Chinese Taipei in its first two games, Israel would clinch a spot in the second round of the Classic with a win over the Netherlands. Israel will be the home team, with first pitch scheduled for 10 p.m. ET.
Chinese Taipei: Next up for Chinese Taipei is a matchup with the Netherlands on Wednesday morning. It's the country's second game of WBC '17. Chinese Taipei will be the road team in the 4:30 a.m. ET contest.