Before the World Baseball Classic began, Japan manager Hiroki Kokubu handed the cleanup spot in his batting order to Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh, the slugging outfielder from the Yokohama DeNA BayStars. One round into the tournament, Tsutsugoh has given Kokubu no reason to regret the decision.
Tsutsugoh had yet another hit Friday, in Japan's 7-1 win over China, and with a .364 batting average and two home runs in three games, he was named Most Valuable Player of Pool B.
"I don't send any signs for the cleanup guy," Kokubu said of Tsutsugoh. "His job is just get RBIs, and he just did what exactly I was expecting for him."
Tsutsugoh homered in each of Japan's first two games of the tournament. His two-run shot helped put away Japan's 11-6 opening win over Cuba, and another two-run shot extended Japan's lead in a 4-1 win over Australia.
Team Japan won each of its three first-round games to top Pool B. Japan will begin second-round play against the Netherlands, Sunday (6 a.m. ET) at Tokyo Dome.
"I don't evaluate which game is more important or less important," Tsutsugoh said. "Every game is just a game."
Tsutsugoh hit 44 home runs in 133 games last season for the BayStars.
Team Israel sprinted out of Pool A with a perfect record on the strength of an offense that scored 21 runs on 36 hits in three games, so it makes sense the Most Valuable Player of that pool would be an Israeli slugger.
The distinction went to catcher Ryan Lavarnway, who was voted Pool A MVP by members of the media on Thursday. Lavarnway batted .556 (5-for-9) with four walks while catching all three victories. He homered, drove in three runs and finished pool play with a .692 on base percentage and .889 slugging percentage.
Lavarnway had a big hit in Israel's eighth-inning rally against Korea in the opener, and he also erased a crucial baserunner with a caught stealing later in the game. Israel shocked many when it defeated Korea, 2-1, in extra innings to begin an undefeated run that also included wins over the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei.
Currently signed to a Minor League deal with the Athletics, Lavarnway has played in parts of five seasons in the Majors, most recently in 2015 with the Braves. He's hit .198 with seven home runs and 40 RBIs in 134 career big league games with the Red Sox, Orioles and Braves. Lavarnway grew up in California and starred for Yale University. His mother is Jewish, which made him eligible to participate for Team Israel.
In a game that was tight from the opening pitch of the first inning to the last one in the bottom of the 10th, the U.S. defeated Colombia, 3-2, on a walk-off single by Orioles center fielder Adam Jones.
Jones' game-winning single to left-center came off Colombia reliever Guillermo Moscoso. Jones finished 2-for-5, with both U.S. RBIs. Adrian Sanchez and Mauricio Ramos hit RBI doubles for Colombia.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
No contact necessary: With the potential tying run 90 feet away and two out in the sixth, Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado struck out swinging at a William Cuevas slider in the dirt, but the ball got past Colombia catcher Jhonatan Solano. As the tying run crossed the plate, Arenado beat Solano's throw to first with a head-first slide.
Triple-double breakthrough: With the game scoreless (and hitless) in the fifth inning, Colombia broke through with three consecutive two-out doubles off Orioles reliever Mychal Givens to take a 2-0 lead. Jesus Valdez stroked a pitch into the gap in left-center, and that was followed by two two-baggers from Sanchez and Ramos.
Passing the stress test: Colombia put runners at first and second with one out in the eighth and the score tied at 2. Donovan Solano hit a line drive to third off Phillies reliever Pat Neshek. Arenado caught the ball and in one motion, while on the run, threw to first to double off Tito Polo.
Clutch Cuevas: In the eighth, the U.S. responded with a threat of its own, putting runners at the corners with one out against Cuevas. But the right-hander struck out Jones and got Arenado to line out to center field.
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS Prior to the three straight doubles against him in the fifth inning, Givens had surrendered three consecutive extra-base hits just once in his Major League career (88 appearances).
WHAT'S NEXT Colombia: It'll be a quick turnaround as Colombia takes on Canada at 12 p.m. ET on Saturday. Canada was beaten by the Dominican Republic, 9-2, in the Pool C opener on Thursday.
United States: The U.S. will take on the defending Classic champion, the Dominican Republic, at 6:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. The game at Marlins Park in Miami is sold out.
Japan prepared for the second round of the World Baseball Classic with an easy 7-1 win over China in Pool B's final first-round game Friday at Tokyo Dome.
Catcher Seiji Kobayashi and first baseman Sho Nakata belted two-run homers for Japan, which had already clinched first place in Pool B and a spot in the second round. Japan will open second-round play against the Netherlands on Sunday (6 a.m. ET) at Tokyo Dome.
Japan won all three of its first-round games in impressive fashion. The hosts beat Cuba, 11-6, and got by Australia, 4-1, before beating China. Third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda, who had four hits and four RBIs against Cuba, was Japan's leading hitter in the first round.
China finished pool play winless.
Retired Major Leaguer Bruce Chen, who was expected to pitch in relief for China, got sick and was unable to come to Tokyo Dome. Chen, who works in the Indians' front office, pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings against Australia and said this will be his last tournament.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Japan power: Going into the tournament, Japan didn't expect to build its offense on home runs. But home runs have been a big part of Japan's game all week. Kobayashi and Nakata's home runs Friday gave Japan six in the three games of the first round. Nakata's home run was the second of the tournament. Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh has also homered twice.
China scores: Manager John McLaren was openly critical of his team's performance in Thursday's 11-0 loss to Australia. While the Chinese pitching wasn't good against Japan, China did show some life at the plate. Third baseman Ray Chang, playing his last game before joining MLB to help develop baseball in China, singled home Fujia Chu in the third inning to give China a run.
Getting ready: Japan had already qualified for the second round, but manager Hiroki Kokubo elected to play almost all of his regulars against China to get them ready for Sunday's second-round opener against the Netherlands. One player who did get the night off was Astros outfielder Norichika Aoki, who was one of the few Japan starters who worked out Thursday.
Fujinami shows off: Major League scouts in attendance at Tokyo Dome had been waiting to see 22-year-old Japan right-hander Shintaro Fujinami, who didn't appear in the first two games. Fujinami entered Friday's game in the fourth inning and showed off a fastball that clocked in the mid-90s on the radar gun. Over two scoreless innings, he fanned four batters, allowed one walk and hit a batter.
WHAT'S NEXT Japan: The Japanese will work out Saturday in preparation for their second-round opener against the Netherlands, 6 a.m. ET on Sunday at Tokyo Dome.
Cuba is still alive in the World Baseball Classic, into the second round for the fourth consecutive tournament, all thanks to one swing of the bat.
Veteran outfielder Alfredo Despaigne's fifth-inning grand slam provided Cuba with all its runs in a 4-3 win that broke Australia's hearts again. The Australians have played in the World Baseball Classic all four times it has been held but have never made it out of the first round. This time they believed they really had a chance.
"We really thought we could beat Cuba," manager Jon Deeble said.
They had a chance and they were impressive, but they're going home. Cuba is staying around, advancing as the second-place team out of Pool B along with Japan, the pool's winner. The second round, which will also be played at Tokyo Dome, begins with Cuba playing Pool C winner Israel at 10 p.m. ET Saturday, followed by Japan-Netherlands at 5 a.m. ET Sunday.
Despaigne is playing in his third World Baseball Classic, and he has seen the Cuba team weakened as players left to sign contracts with the major leagues. He's now the cleanup hitter and the team's biggest star, counted on for moments like the one he delivered Friday.
"I'm so happy to contribute to the national team," he said.
Cuba trailed 1-0 through four innings, and the Cubans hadn't advanced a runner past first base against Tigers right-hander Warwick Saupold. But the Tigers had asked that Saupold throw no more than 50 pitches in a game, so Deeble had to take his starter out of the game after four scoreless innings.
He turned to Lachlan Wells, the just-turned-20 Twins prospect who was impressive in Australia's opening game against Japan. Wells quickly got two outs, but two singles and a walk loaded the bases for Despaigne. After Wells fell behind in the count 2-1, he threw an 89 mph fastball that Despaigne crushed to left field.
Cuba never scored again. Australia did, with single runs in the seventh and eighth before Miguel Lahera came in to get the final three outs. But all that gave them was another one-run loss to Cuba, to go with the 5-4 defeat that knocked the Aussies out of the tournament in 2009.
"We out-hit them, we outplayed them," Deeble said. "The only place we didn't win was the scoreboard. They [Cuba] have a knack of doing that."
They have a knack for getting through the first round, having done it in each edition of the World Baseball Classic so far. What Cuba hasn't done since the initial tournament in 2006 is make it to the semifinals.
"We're trying to go for Los Angeles," Cuba manager Carlos Marti said, referring to the final round that begins March 20 at Dodger Stadium. "That's our next goal."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Cuba's local hero: Despaigne is popular in Japan, where he played the last three seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines and just signed a new three-year contract with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. He has certainly looked at home at Tokyo Dome this week, with two home runs in three games. It's nothing new for him, though. Despaigne homered three times in six games in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. His grand slam Friday came off an 89 mph 2-1 fastball Wells left in the middle of the plate.
"I don't swing to be a home run king," Despaigne said. "I try to drive in runs."
All those Aussies on base: Australia will remember the Despaigne home run, but also all the missed chances to score more runs early in the game. The Aussies had two runners on base in the first, second and fourth innings, without scoring. They had the bases loaded in the third, before Yoennis Yera came out of the Cuba bullpen to strike out Logan Wade. Wade eventually gave Australia a lead with his two-out single off Yera in the fifth inning, but it could have been a lot more than 1-0 at that point. Australia ended up leaving 15 runners on base. More >>
Australia fights back: Just as it did against against Japan, Australia took a 1-0 lead but couldn't hold it. Unlike against Japan, the Aussies were able to challenge after they fell behind. They got a seventh-inning home run from Trent Oeltjen, who played 99 major league games with the Diamondbacks and Dodgers from 2009-11, and an eighth-inning run on a double by Luke Hughes and a single by Mitch Dening.
Saupold celebrates: Cuba's lone threat against Saupold came in the fourth inning, when a walk, a hit batter and a single loaded the bases with one out. Saupold got Carlos Benitez to bounce back to the mound, and when the 1-2-3 double play was complete, the Tigers pitcher punctuated it with a double fist-pump.
QUOTABLE "I can't wait for [Frederich] Cepeda and Despaigne to retire. They have worn me out for 16 years. They have destroyed us. This has gone on and on and on. They're great players, fantastic players." -- Deeble.
"This victory belongs to the people of Cuba. We advanced to the second round. That means a lot not just to me but to all the fans in Cuba." -- Roel Santos, Cuba center fielder.
WHAT'S NEXT Australia: The Aussies head home knowing they left a good impression, but also realizing it wasn't good enough. They lost 4-1 to Japan and routed China 11-0, but they couldn't get past Cuba.
Cuba: The Cubans get to stay around, and their reward is a second-round opening game against Israel at 10 p.m. ET Saturday.
Italy slugged four of the six homers in the game, all in the first five innings. Andreoli hit a solo shot in the first, and in the fourth, both Rob Segedin and Colabello went deep. Drew Butera belted a solo homer in the fifth.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Blast-off: Second baseman Esteban Quiroz wasted no time in getting Mexico on the board, leading off the game with an opposite-field home run over the left-field wall off Italy starter Alessandro Maestri. Quiroz followed that up with an RBI double in the third to put Mexico up, 2-1. More >
Amador says 'Adios': With one out in the fourth, Japhet Amador launched a 1-2 pitch from Italy reliever Tiago da Silva over the wall in left to extend Mexico's lead to 3-1. Mexico tacked on another run in the frame on a Sebastian Elizalde single.
Buca di Oppo: After seeing Mexico pad its lead in the top half of the inning, Segedin and Colabello pulled Italy even with a pair of homers to right field off Mexico starter Yovani Gallardo in the bottom of the fourth.
Cruz control: With two outs and the bases loaded in the fifth, Luis Alfonso Cruz jumped on the first pitch he saw from Italy's Pat Venditte, driving it down the left-field line for a two-run double to reclaim a three-run lead for Mexico.
Nimmo's clutch knock: Down 9-7 in the ninth, Mets prospect Nimmo drove a 1-2 pitch from Oliver Perez to right field, where Dodgers prospect Alex Verdugo dove to his right but couldn't come up with the catch. As the ball kicked away from Verdugo, a run scored to bring the Italians within one.
QUOTABLE "Well, for some reason, any time Italy wins, it's a big surprise. It's been like that for eight years now. The only ones that are not surprised, it's these guys, because they're playing to win. They're playing to win every pitch. And sometimes we're able to make it, sometimes we don't make it. But they play to win, and they showed it tonight." -- Italy manager Marco Mazzieri
"We were winning, 9-5, in the last inning. They are all closers from the big leagues, and I don't see anything that could have been different. We were up, 9-5, with the best closers in the big leagues. You cannot do anything different. Baseball didn't pay off today; it wasn't our game. We know [Osuna's] an awesome pitcher, and there are good days and bad days for everybody." -- Mexico manager Edgar Gonzalez
WHAT'S NEXT Mexico: Mexico takes on Puerto Rico on Saturday at 9:30 p.m EST. Puerto Rico was the runner-up in the 2013 Classic, losing to the Dominican Republic in the championship game.
Italy: Italy's next opponent in round-robin Pool D play is Venezuela, on Saturday at 3 p.m. EST.