It will take one more win to punch a ticket to San Francisco. But of course nothing’s secured yet for Team Japan.
After a nail-biting 4-3 extra-inning victory over Taiwan in their first game of the World Baseball Classic’s second round on Friday, the two-time reigning champion Japan will face the Netherlands on Sunday at Tokyo Dome.
It is expected to be a tough challenge for the Japanese pitchers against the Dutch hitters, who came up with 14 hits and two home runs against Cuba on Friday.
Right-hander Kenta Maeda, the scheduled starting pitcher for the game, said that he felt it’s certainly different to pitch in the WBC than in the NPB season by watching the hard-fought battle versus Taiwan from the dugout.
“I was like, this is the WBC,” the 2010 Sawamura Award winner said during Japan’s practice on Saturday at the Big Egg. “And it made me feel like I want to pitch there to contribute to the team, help us clinch a trip to the United States.”
Maeda, as star ace hurler for the Hiroshima Carp, has pitched on Opening Days and in a pair of All-Star games. But he said it was almost impossible to compare being on the mound in the WBC with other occasions in an NPB season.
“Well, first, you can just enjoy playing in the All-Star Game,” he said. “As far as Opening Day starts, yeah, you have some jitters before you take the mound, but at the same time you always have another chance in a long season. You don’t have that in here.”
Maeda put up a stellar outing against China last Sunday in the first round in Fukuoka. He pitched five rock-solid innings, allowing no runs and one hit and fanned six batters.
But his next opponent will be much tougher, featuring stronger Dutch batters. Plus, he’ll have to face them at a hitter’s park, Tokyo Dome.
Maeda, who posted the best ERA in the Central League at 1.53 last season, is surely aware about that.
“They can hit extra-base hits and home runs,” he said. “So I’ve got to be real careful of my command. I need to eliminate mistakes as much as possible.
“Hopefully, I can go as long as I can, because me being on the mound for many innings means we’ll have a better chance to win the ballgame.”
Japan’s pitching has been its strength, and it’ll have to be that way as it offense has not really clicked in the last four games the team has played in the tourney.
“I think our pitchers have done really well so far,” Team Japan skipper Koji Yamamoto said.
Head coach Masataka Nashida suggested that he watched the Netherlands of last year on the video, but couldn’t really count on it.
“It feels like they are a lot better than at that time,” Nashida said. “They’ve got hitters in the Nos. 1, 2, 3 hitters, and at Nos. 4 and 5 they have (Wladimir) Balentien and Andruw Jones, who’ve played in the majors. Actually they’ve got great hitters after them, too.”
Nashida muttered that Team Japan could get on the scoreboard a little earlier. Japan averaged only 1.75 runs through the first five innings.
“We need to get on the board first,” Nashida said. “And hopefully, it could make our pitchers’ jobs a bit easier.”
The winner of Sunday and Monday’s games will advance to San Francisco because both teams for Tuesday’s game will have already clinched berths in the final round — spots in the semifinals at AT&T Park next week.
Staff writer Jason Coskrey contributed to this report.