FUKUOKA – Kenta Maeda shook off worries about his form with five shutout innings as Japan beat China 5-2 in first-round Pool A of the World Baseball Classic on Sunday at Fukuoka Dome.
Japan improved to 2-0 following a tough win over Brazil in Saturday evening’s opener. Earlier on Sunday, Cuba defeated Brazil 5-2. Should Cuba defeat China in Monday’s game, both Cuba and Japan would be guaranteed spots in quarterfinal Pool 1 at Tokyo Dome.
Maeda, who had felt discomfort in his shoulder earlier in the spring and had been in poor form since joining the Japan squad on Feb. 15, allowed one hit and one walk, while striking out six.
“I’m glad I could hold them scoreless,” the Hiroshima Carp ace said of his WBC debut. “However, a number of pitches still got away from me, so I want to correct that before my next outing. I think I eased everyone’s concerns.”
Japan opened the scoring in the bottom of the second inning against China right-hander Luo Xia. Yoshio Itoi drew a one-out walk, stole second and scored on Sho Nakata’s sharp ground single. A hit batsman and a walk loaded the bases, but Hayato Sakamoto flied out to end the inning.
Luo threw 65 pitches over 3-2/3 innings and was relieved by former Seibu Lions farmhand Zhu Dawei, who got China out of the fourth, but couldn’t finish the fifth.
A pair of Fukuoka Softbank Hawks playing in front of their home crowd helped pad the lead. Nobuhiro Matsuda led off with an infield single. A sacrifice, a wild pitch and a walk put runners on the corners for his Hawks teammate Seiichi Uchikawa, who singled Matsuda home.
Uchikawa said he was inspired by teammate Hirokazu Ibata’s clutch hit that helped Japan survive a tough game against WBC newcomer Brazil on Saturday.
“We had one run in, but we’ve been having trouble getting that next one in,” said Uchikawa, who had singled in the first inning before being caught stealing. “I fell behind in the count, but I wanted to do something the way Ibata did yesterday.”
“As one would expect, you get nervous. But after yesterday’s game I could be relaxed and collected at the plate.”
Zhu walked the bases loaded and former China ace Chen Kun took the mound only to give up a three-run double to Itoi to deep center.
Maeda was followed to the mound by lefty Tetsuya Utsumi, who worked 1-2/3 perfect innings. Hideaki Wakui finished the seventh with a strikeout as Japan manager Koji Yamamoto began giving his reserves some playing time with two off days before the team’s final Pool A game against Cuba. Hirokazu Sawamura came on in the eighth inning and struck out the side.
Former Chunichi Dragons farmhand Lu Jiangang retired Japan in order in the eighth, and China got on the scoreboard in the ninth.
China opened with back-to-back singles off southpaw setup man Tetsuya Yamaguchi. With one out, the lefty uncorked two straight wild pitches, the second on a strikeout that allowed the batter to reach safely. A groundout to third brought in China’s second run. Veteran catcher Wang Wei, however, was unable to prolong the rally, striking out to end the game.
In Sunday’s earlier game, powerhouse Cuba was pressured by World Baseball Classic debutant Brazil on Sunday, but walked off with a 5-2 victory in their first-round Pool A game.
Cuba turned away Brazil’s persistent attack to keep the game scoreless through four innings and finally broke through for two runs in the top of the fifth. In the third inning, center fielder Guillermo Heredia snuffed out Brazil’s second scoring opportunity, when he hauled down a two-out drive to deep center to end the inning with two men racing home to score.
Brazil starter Andre Rienzo had walked three of the first six batters he faced in the game, but retired the next nine in a row before walking Jose Fernandez to open the fifth. A foul two-strike bunt got the right-hander his only strikeout, but Cuba was able to exploit Brazil’s defense to take the lead.
A textbook hit-and-run saw second baseman Felipe Burin move to cover second and No. 9 hitter Erisbel Arruebarruena push a ground ball behind Burin into right field. With runners on the corners, Brazil failed to get the lead runner on a tailor-made double play off the bat of Heredia that would have ended the inning. Rienzo was removed for passing the 65-pitch limit and Ernesto Norris gave up an RBI single to veteran slugger Alexei Bell.
Brazil manager went to Gabriel Asakura to start the sixth inning, but the Cal State L.A. pitcher retired none of the three batters he faced, allowing two singles and hitting a batter. Tokyo Yakult Swallows minor leaguer Hugo Kanabushi got pinch hitter Raul Gonzalez to hit a double-play ball to third baseman Reinaldo Reginatto, who fumbled it and got just one out as a run scored.
Kanabushi left after loading the bases with a single. Kesley Kondo, who allowed two hits and a walk in a third of an inning against Japan on Saturday, gave up a two-run single to Arruebarruena. After an out and a walk, corporate league right-hander Carlos Yoshimura came on to get the final out.
Brazil, which had four hits over 4-2/3 innings against right-hander Ismel Jimenez, got on the board with two unearned runs against right-hander Freddy Alvarez.
After a leadoff walk, a dropped ball by first baseman Jose Abreu and a passed ball, Yakult’s Daniel Yuichi Matsumoto reached on an RBI infield single. His former Swallows teammate, Reinaldo Sato, grounded into a double play as a run scored.
Yoshimura pitched out of a jam in the top of the seventh, and Brazil appeared set for a rally in the home half against right-hander Raciel Iglesias. Juan Carlos Muniz saw his leadoff double and second hit of the game disallowed. Cuba successfully appealed that Muniz had failed to touch first and Iglesias got out of the inning.
With Muniz’s double expunged, Iglesias retired six batters before Matsumoto singled to open the bottom of the ninth. Iglesias, however, struck out the next three batters to earn the save.