Shinnosuke Abe set a World Baseball Classic that will likely never be broken, stroking two home runs against the Netherlands in an eight-run second inning. Japan made the early lead hold in a 10-6 victory that gave the Samurai a No. 1 seed in the semifinals. The Netherlands will join them in San Francisco and take on the top team from Pool Two in Miami.
It was the Netherlands who went on top first. Andrelton Simmons led off the game by crushing the second pitch he saw into the left centre field seats. It was his second longball in two days. Japanese starter Kenji Otonari immediately settled down, striking out the side.
David Bergman, a veteran of the Honkbal Hoofdklasse in Japan, looked strong in a 1-2-3 first inning. Otonari continued where he left off in the second, getting two more strikeouts.
Samurai Japan exploded in the second against Bergman. Abe led off with a solo shot to right field to tie the game, and Bergman loaded the bases on a walk, a hit batter, and a bunt single that Katsuya Kakunaka beat out. Nobuhiro Matsuda drove home one with a safety, but Hisayoshi Chōno upstaged him with a bases-clearing double into the left field corner.
With the score at 5-1, Bergman looked to right the ship, getting the second out but walking Hirokazu Ibata. Dutch manager Hensley Meulens yanked his starter and inserted Jonatan Isenia to stop the bleeding.
With two on, Abe stepped to the plate and blasted Isenia’s pitch to almost the exact same location as his first longball, collecting three RBI and giving Japan an 8-1 lead. That was all in the inning, but the damage was done.
Both sides were quiet from the third through the sixth innings. Isenia was solid in two innings of relief and Mark Pawelek overcame a wild warmup to through 1 1/3 scoreless innings with two strikeouts.
Koji Yamamoto, Japan’s manager, received superb relief work during the middle frames. Otonari exited after three innings, striking out six, walking one, and allowing only the dinger to Simmons. Hirokazu Sawamura, Mashiro Tanaka, and Takeru Imamura followed with shutout frames. Tanaka in particular was impressive, whiffing two with unhittable stuff.
The Orange finally narrowed the gap in the seventh against Masahiko Morifuku. Curt Smith drew a walk to start the inning, Kalian Sams doubled, and Xander Bogaerts plated Smith on a slow bouncer to second that the speedy infielder beat out for a hit. Randolph Oduber hit a sacrifice fly to score Sams with the Netherlands’ third run.
Kevin Heijstek threw his second straight scoreless inning in the bottom of the frame, and the Netherlands rallied in the eighth. Hainley Statia, started for the injured Wladimir Balentien, reached on an infield hit to the hole on the left side and went to second on a walk to Jonathan Schoop. Two straight grounders almost ended the threat, though the second by Smith scored Statia.
Sams stepped up to the plate and drilled a single to centre to knock out Morifuku and score Schoop. Bogaerts greeted Tetsuya Yamaguchi with a line drive into the left field corner. Bogaerts legged out two bases and the Orange had two runners in scoring position.
Quintin de Cuba, a defensive replacement in the fifth, stroked his first hit of the Classic to plate Sams, and the Netherlands were only down by two with runners once more on the corners. Oduber, who had a key double in the Dutch victory over Cuba the night before, struck out to end the threat with the Netherlands now trailing only 8-6.
With the Dutch suddenly rallying, Japanese refocused in the bottom of the eighth. Sho Nakata led off with a single and was erased on a poor sacrifice bunt attempt by Katsuya Kakunaka. Kakunaka created his own threat, though, stealing second and advancing to third on a passed ball.
Nobuhiro Matsuda worked a free pass and went to second on defensive indifference, and Chōno collected two more RBIs with a safety to left. Chōno was caught stealing to end the frame, but Japan had rebuilt their lead to four.
The Orange attempted a comeback against Kazuhisa Makita in the ninth, but it fell short. Statia hustled for another infield hit with one out and moved up on a Schoop single. Andruw Jones stepped up to the plate still looking for his first hit of the day after eight in the previous six games, but grounded to second to force Schoop at the keystone sack. The Netherlands had one final chance with runners on the corners, but Curt Smith could not catch up to a Makita fastball and struck out.
Otonari earned his first win of the tournament and seven other hurlers finished off the game. Bergman took the loss, surrendering seven runs on four hits and two walks in 1 2/3. The Dutch bullpen threw 7 1/3 innings, scattering six baserunners and allowing only one earned run.
Japan’s offence, which came alive in the second round, banged out nine hits, one fewer than the Netherlands, but made the most of them. The Samurai left only three runners on base and were 5-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
Abe, Chōno, and Matsuda all had two hits, with Chōno pacing the team in RBI with five. Abe hit the first two home runs of his Classic career, but lost out on Pool 1 MVP honours to Ibata, who hit .556 and was a consistent performer when Japan’s bats were scuffling.
Statia, Sams, and Bogaerts all had two hits for the Netherlands. Sams was the only player to score twice and his double was the third for him in the WBC. The Orange left eight runners on base and struck out 13 times.
Japan will take on the Pool 2 runner-up from Miami on Mar. 18 at 1 a.m. GMT in San Francisco. The Netherlands will face the winner 24 hours later, with the victors in both games playing for the world championship a day later.
Stay tuned for coverage of the second round pool in Miami and the World Baseball Classic finals in AT&T Park.