By Gabriel Fidler (@gabrielfidler)
Kenta Maeda threw five innings of one-hit ball and Yoshio Itoi blasted a three-run double to give Japan its second victory in the World Baseball Classic. China rallied in the ninth, but Japan held on for a 5-2 decision and China’s first loss of the tourney.
The matchup was the second scare in a row for the third-ranked Samurai. To the surprise of almost everyone, the contest was a pitchers’ duel through four and one-half frames. Xia Luo started for China and showed poise well beyond his 20 years, most evident after a difficult second inning.
After surrendering a walk and a stolen base to Itoi with one out, Luo dug in and induced a weak groundball to the mound for the second out. Sho Nakata bounced a ball to the left side that snuck through for a RBI single, and Luo hit the next batter.
With two runners on base, Luo went to a full count on Nobuhiro Matsuda, just missing the zone on the sixth pitch of the at bat. With the bases now loaded, Luo then retired Hayato Sakamoto to end the threat.
In the third, Luo struck out former major leaguer Kazuo Matsui in a 1-2-3 inning, and exited once hitting the 65-pitch limit in the fourth. The right-hander was the hard luck loser after working around three hits and two walks in 3 2/3, whiffing a pair.
Maeda needed only 56 pitches to dispose of the red-and-gold through the fifth. There was plenty of concern among Japanese officials when Maeda was struggling to get his fastball into the mid-80s/130s, but he touched 90 mph/145 kmh several times on the gun and using a nasty slider and breaking pitch to carve up the inexperienced Chinese lineup.
The righty gave up only a walk and a double to Lei Li, retiring the last five batters he faced. Maeda struck out six in his first-ever WBC win.
Japan added four much-needed insurance runs in the fifth. Matsuda led off with an infield single and Sakomoto laid down a bunt to push him over. Matsui walked to put two runners on against Dawei Zhu, who then gave up a run-scoring safety to Seiichi Uchikawa. After a walk to cleanup hitter Shinnosuke Abe, Kun Chen entered for China.
Itoi offered Chen a rude greeting, crushing Chen’s second pitch to dead centerfield, missing a home run by less than 10 feet. The two-bagger emptied the bases and gave Japan the 5-0 lead.
The bullpens dominated the game the rest of the way. Tetsuya Utsumi was the second pitcher for Japan, retiring all five batters he faced, two with the K ball. Hideaki Wakui struck out the only batter he faced before yielding to Hirokazu Sawamura.
Sawamura showed the best fastball of the tournament, striking out the side on 11 pitches in the eighth. The righty used a nice hook to complement a fastball that consistently hit 94 mph/151 kmh.
The Chinese ‘pen matched Japan’s veteran hurlers late in the game. Lu Shuai struck out Itoi and Nakata in a 1-2-3 eighth, and Jiangang Lu finished off the game with three quick outs, sending down Matsuda looking on strikes. Red-and-gold hurlers retired the final eight batters of the game.
China’s hitters made things interesting in the ninth against Tetsuya Yamaguchi. Pinch hitter Weiqiang Meng singled to right and Xiao Cui followed with a second-straight base hit through the hole on the right side to put runners on first and second with no one out.
Manager John McLaren, hoping for more magic, went to his bench once more and Jia Delong came off the bench to hit. Yamaguchi got him swinging, but threw a wild pitch to the next batter, Lei Li, that advanced both runners. Li struck out on a pitch that bounced in front of the plate, but the ball bounced to the backstop and Meng raced home with Brazil’s first run.
Li made it to first as the area behind home plate was too spacious for Japan to recover in time. Ray Chang, the only professional player on China’s roster, bounced a grounder to third to score Cui, and China had a runner on second with two outs. Yamaguchi was too much for pinch hitter Wei Dong, striking him out looking to end the game.
Samurai hurlers allowed only three hits and a walk, striking out 15 batters. China held Japan to six hits, but walked six batters, recording five strikeouts. Uchikawa and Nakata both had two hits to pace Japan, while Itoi reached base in two plate appearances.
China will have less than 24 hours to regroup for a battle with Cuba on Mar. 4 at 7:30 GMT. Japan will take three days off to prepare with their showdown with the same Cuban side. First pitch is at 10 a.m. on Mar. 6.