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.
Dutch center fielder Jurickson Profar drew a bases-loaded walk to help the Netherlands complete a wild late-inning comeback and punch a ticket to the second round of the World Baseball Classic with a 6-5 win over Chinese Taipei at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday night.
Earlier in the at-bat, Profar popped up to shallow right field and it appeared as if the Netherlands had hit into its first out of the inning. However, third-base umpire Chikara Tsugawa ruled that time had been called prior to the pitch from Hung-Wen Chen. The at-bat continued, and Profar took ball four to plate the winning run.
"We had to play a good game to beat them," said Netherlands manager Hensley Meulens. "They beat us last time [in 2013]. ... We knew they had some players missing from that roster that weren't here this year, but still, they played a great game."
The victory sends the Netherlands and Israel, who also won their first two games, to Pool E of the World Baseball Classic in Tokyo.
Designated hitter Didi Gregorius contributed three doubles, including the game-tying hit in the eighth inning to power the Netherlands' offense. The Yankees' shortstop accounted for each of the first five Netherlands runs.
Wladimir Balentien, a former Mariners and Reds outfielder and member of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows of Nippon Professional Baseball, singled four times in four at-bats, while catcher Dashenko Ricardo chipped in with two RBI singles.
"They shut us down a couple innings, but we managed to fight back, because we always want to battle, never give up," Gregorius said. "We have a great team. Everybody's pushing each other, help each other, everybody can go the right way."
Following Chih-Hao Chang's two-run homer that tied the game at 4, Chinese Taipei took the lead on a fielder's-choice groundout from Yi-Chuan Lin to cap off a three-run fifth inning.
The first three hitters in Chinese Taipei's batting order all collected multiple hits, highlighted by Chang's 3-for-5 day, but the rest of the lineup struggled.
Shao-Ching Chiang, a Minor Leaguer in the Indians' organization, silenced the Dutch bats throughout the game's middle innings, but he was charged with an earned run after reliever Fu-Te Ni allowed the equalizing run to score on Gregorius' third double.
"He joined us a little bit late," Chinese Taipei manager Tai-Yuan Kuo said of Chiang. "We have some confidence in him. That's why we have him pitch as a reliever."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Didi doubles down: Gregorius provided the offense for the Netherlands. The Bronx Bomber doubled and scored the first Dutch run in the second inning and followed it up with a two-bagger with two men on in the fourth to give his team the lead. But he was not done yet. Gregorius saved his best for last, slapping another double to left in the eighth to tie the game at 5.
"It's not just me," said Gregorius. "It's a team. If I don't get to bat with runners on, nothing would have happened. Guys got on base and I got a base hit and we tied the game and we went up, and I mean, that's what matters." More >
Chang cashes in: With Chinese Taipei trailing, 4-2, and a runner on-base in the fifth inning, Chang sent a towering drive into the right-field seats to tie the score. The pitch from Dutch right-hander Lars Huijer was out of the strike zone, but Chang dropped his bat head and connected, sending the crowd into a frenzy with a majestic blast.
Justice prevails: It looked as though the Netherlands might get robbed of a baserunner when Jonathan Schoop was called out, despite the replays clearly showing that he beat out his double-play ball in the eighth inning. The WBC '17 rules only allow replay reviews on home runs in the first and second rounds of the tournament, so the ruling on the field could not be reviewed. Iin the ninth inning, Meulens called timeout prior to Profar's popup, but play was not stopped until the ball was already in the air.
"That was called in time from way before, but nobody could hear me," Meulens said. "But the third-base umpire saw me coming onto the field, calling time. And that's why it looked crazy, but he was the only one of the umpires who saw me calling time."
"There's a lot to be said about Didi. He's a trouper. He's a pro. You know, he's not playing defense. He didn't care. He's contributing out of the DH slot. Today was a day that I probably would have played him at short, so they can both play defense. But he didn't care. He prepared. He had done in the cage, made sure he was ready for each at‑bat." -- Meulens, on Gregorius
WHAT'S NEXT Chinese Taipei: Chinese Taipei squares off against Korea on Thursday at 4:30 a.m. ET looking to pick up its first win in WBC '17.
Netherlands: The Dutch have guaranteed a spot in the second round, but they face undefeated Israel on Wednesday night at 10 p.m. ET to determine the winner of Pool A. The Netherlands will send right-hander Rob Cordemans to the mound to oppose Israeli righty Jason Marquis.
An opening loss to Japan put Cuba under pressure in the World Baseball Classic, and three innings of frustration against China and Bruce Chen only made things worse.
Then manager Carlos Marti called his hitters together before the bottom of the fourth inning Wednesday (local time) at the Tokyo Dome. Chen, the retired Major Leaguer who is China's best pitcher, was out of the game, which remained scoreless. It was time for the Cubans to start scoring runs.
Marti's players responded, quickly and dramatically. Cuba sent nine batters to the plate and scored four times in the fourth, taking control of a Pool B game they went on to win, 6-0. Roel Santos' two-run triple was the biggest hit of the inning, coming right after 19-year-old Yoelquis Cespedes drove in the first run.
With a 1-1 record through two games and only a game against Australia remaining, the Cubans kept alive their chances of advancing to the tournament's second round. China is 0-1, with games against Australia and Japan remaining.
"If we can win against Australia, we most likely go to the second round," Marti said. "It's going to be a very important game. But if we lose, it's not the end of the world."
Marti doesn't want to put any more pressure on his team. The Cubans already had enough of that, as Wednesday's game remained scoreless through three innings.
Marti said the purpose of his quick in-game meeting was simple, just a reminder his hitters needed to adjust to the slower-throwing Chinese pitchers after facing the harder-throwing Japanese relievers just hours earlier in Tuesday night's 11-6 loss.
"That's it," he said.
And that was it. The Cubans started hitting, and China never did. Cuba starter Bladimir Banos and three relievers limited China to just one hit, a fifth-inning Shunyi Yang single off Banos.
"We didn't have any hitting at all, and that's a lot of credit to the Cuban pitchers," China manager John McLaren said.
Chen didn't allow a run in his 2 2/3 innings, but McLaren removed him after 49 pitches to preserve his eligibility to pitch later in Pool B play. McLaren said Chen will pitch at some point in China's final scheduled first-round game, Friday night against Japan, live on MLB.TV.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED The kid leads the Cubans:Yoenis Cespedes was already 23 years old when he burst on the international scene by batting .480 for Cuba in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. His half-brother, Yoelquis, is only 19 and is already an emerging star in this tournament. Yoelquis had three hits in Cuba's 11-6 Classic-opening loss to Japan, and it was his single off the right-field wall that drove home Cuba's go-ahead run and kick-started the four-run fourth inning Wednesday.
Chen's 49-pitch escape: Chen, who retired in 2015 after 17 Major League seasons, is by far China's best pitcher, so McLaren knew his best chance of advancing was to use Chen twice in the first round. To do that, Chen could throw no more than 49 pitches against Cuba. That looked like a problem when Chen had early control issues and threw 21 pitches in the first inning. Chen began the third at 43 pitches, and he allowed a leadoff infield single to Santos on a 1-1 pitch. That gave him just three pitches to retire Alexander Ayala. Chen did that, and more. On his 49th pitch, he got Ayala to ground into a double play, ending his day with 2 2/3 scoreless innings. And he can pitch again Friday against Japan, in China's final first-round game. More >
Banos nearly perfect: Cuba held its top starting pitchers out of the opening game against Japan, believing that wins over China and Australia would be enough to advance to the second round. The plan looked questionable when Cuba lost, 11-6, to Japan, but Banos made it look better with his strong outing against China. He was in total control and was efficient enough to make it through five innings despite the tournament's 65-pitch limit for first-round games.
Cuban bats stay hot: Cuba had nine hits in the final three innings vs. Japan, and the hot hitting continued against China. Santos, Ayala and Yurisbel Gracial each had three of Cuba's 14 hits. Gracial, a 31-year-old third baseman who played last summer for Quebec in the independent Can-Am League, is 5-for-8 in WBC 2017.
QUOTABLE "I knew Cuba was a very tough opponent. They're a great country for baseball." -- McLaren
"I don't want it to be special. I want it to be natural. I want them to feel it's just another game." -- Marti, on Cuba's key game against Australia
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS Chen called catcher Wei Wang to the mound during the first inning, but it wasn't because the two couldn't get together on signs or strategy. "I can understand Spanish," said Chen, who grew up in Panama. "And I heard the Cuban players yelling 'in' or 'out' as [Wang] set up. So I just asked him to set up later."
WHAT'S NEXT China: Right-hander Kwon Ju will will face Australia in China's second game of the tournament at 5 a.m. ET on Thursday at the Tokyo Dome.
Cuba: Ace right-hander Lazaro Blanco will start Cuba's third game of Pool B against Australia at 10 p.m. on Thursday at the Tokyo Dome.