The fans at a sold-out Tokyo Dome were getting restless as Sho Nakata jogged out to take his position in left field for the bottom of the 10th inning.
Finally, just a few strides past the mound, Nakata gave the crowd a big fist bump and a capacity crowd exploded in unison.
Nakata drove in the tie-breaking run with a sacrifice fly in the 10th inning, and Japan inched closer to a spot in the final round of the World Baseball Classic with a 4-3 win over Taiwan on Friday at Tokyo Dome.
“I had blown some opportunities earlier in the game,” Nakata said. “(Shinnosuke) Abe told me, ‘Do not put too much pressure on yourself and just relax.’”
The victory puts Japan within a win of reaching the WBC semifinals, which will be held in San Francisco. The Japanese get their first chance to advance on Sunday when they meet the Netherlands.
“What a ballgame,” Japan manager Koji Yamamoto said. “I’m so pleased we could win.”
Japan had rallied from 2-0 down to tie the game in the eighth, only to watch Masahiro Tanaka give up a go-ahead run on an RBI single by Chou Szu-Chi that made the score 3-2 in the bottom half of the inning.
Takashi Toritani drew a one-out walk in the ninth, and stole second later in the inning with two away. Toritani’s boldness was rewarded when Hirokazu Ibata, down to his last strike, lined an RBI single into center.
“All the Japanese fans are showing their appreciation for Ibata, and so am I,” Yamamoto said.
Ryoji Aikawa singled to begin the 10th, and Yoshio Itoi drew a walk to put two on with none out. Hayato Sakamoto moved the runners over with a sacrifice bunt, and Nakata put Japan ahead with his sacrifice fly.
Japan’s Kazuhisa Makita earned the win with one inning of scoreless relief, with Hung-Wen Chen taking the loss. Toshiya Sugiuchi earned the save.
Wang Chien-Meng had another good start for Taiwan, allowing six hits and striking out two over six scoreless innings, but did not get a decision.
“There aren’t any pitchers like him in Japan,” Ibata said.
The loss pushes Taiwan to the brink of elimination. Taiwan will face Cuba on Saturday for the right to stay alive in the tournament.
“My heart is still pounding,” Taiwan manager manager Hseieh Chan-Heng said. “But the game is over and we have to reset. Cuba has such a strong history of baseball, and they are so tough. So I wish my all my pitchers the best.”