Yuki Saito was such a certainty to take the mound against South Korea that Japan manager Tamotsu Enomoto forgot to tell him.
Luckily, Saito was ready just in case.
Saito threw six shutout innings and Hayata Ito and Shota Ishimine powered Japan with a pair of two-run home runs in a 4-0 victory over South Korea at the World University Baseball Championship at Jingu Stadium on Friday.
“There was nobody else but him who should start this game,” Enomoto said. “I think he is the ace of the Japan team even though there are so many great pitchers.
“I tried to let him know through eye contact, but I don’t think he got it,” Enomoto joked. “I’ll make sure I tell him directly from now on.”
Saito wasn’t at his sharpest but was still good enough to strike out nine and keep the Koreans off the scoreboard.
“This is my last opportunity to pitch for the national team,” Saito said. “So I really want to win the championship and I really wanted to win this game today.
“No matter how I did, I really wanted to get a win for the team. I just wanted to go as many innings as possible. I’m really happy I didn’t give up any runs over six innings.”
Saito and relievers Masahiro Inui and Tatsuya Oishi combined to strike out 17.
“In Korea we don’t allow our young pitchers to throw forks (forkballs) and split-finger fastballs,” manager Lee Yeon Soo said. “So we had trouble adjusting to that type of pitching.”
Because of Saito’s effectiveness, South Korean starter Yoon Myung June and the two defenses, the teams entered the bottom of the sixth locked in a scoreless duel.
Ishimine struck first for Japan, lining a one-out single up the middle that sent Yoon to the showers, leaving reliever Na Sung Bum the task of facing Ito.
Ito wasted little time, driving the third pitch of the at-bat into the right-field bleachers to put Japan ahead 2-0.
“Our pitcher was really pitching well and our defensive guys were playing well also,” Ito said.
“So when Ishimine singled, I wanted to be aggressive in my at-bat. I swung really hard at the first pitch (a strike) but I kept my composure and hit the third pitch really well.”
The game was the opener for both teams in the tournament, which this year brings together eight squads from Japan, Canada, Cuba, China, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and the U.S.
Earlier in the day Canada edged Taiwan 3-2 at Jingu Stadium in the tournament’s opening game.
The Canadians led 3-1 after four innings, and held on for the win despite allowing a run in the ninth.
Ryan Flemming finished 1-for-4 with a homer for Canada and pitcher Sheldon McDonald tossed eight innings of one-run ball for the victory.
The United States followed that with a 15-0 thumping of Sri Lanka in the day’s second game at Utsumi Shimaoka Ballpark.
That game was stopped after the bottom of the fifth inning due to the mercy rule.
U.S. outfielder George Springer homered and drove in a pair of runs while Nick Ramirez also went deep. Outfielder Mikie Mahtook finished 3-for-3 with three RBIs.
Pitcher Sonny Gray allowed a hit and struck out 14 in five scoreless innings.