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Second-round resurgence makes Samurai Japan a legitimate title contender

by Jason Coskrey

The crowd at Tokyo Dome erupted for Samurai Japan one final time, after a 10-6 win over the Netherlands Tuesday night, as manager Koji Yamamoto led his squad onto the field to salute the fans following the team’s last appearance on Japanese soil during the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

The atmosphere in the Big Egg that night had neither the unbridled relief that was present after Japan rallied for a 10-inning, 4-3 win over Taiwan to open the second round, nor the intoxicating jubilation brought on by the six home runs that contributed to a 16-4 thumping of the Netherlands that put the team into the semifinals.

This time, perhaps for the first time since pitcher Masahiro Tanaka came unhinged against Brazil in Japan’s opener, there was more than cautious optimism about Japan’s chances at a WBC three-peat.

There was confidence.

“We’ve become a better team as the tournament has progressed,” veteran infielder Astunori Inaba said after Tuesday’s game.

Other than earning a trip to the semifinals, the most important thing Japan accomplished during the second round was to regain its confidence.

If Samurai Japan does indeed go on to win the WBC, it can point to Takashi Toritani’s bold steal of second with two outs in the top of the ninth against Taiwan, with Japan trailing 3-2, as the catalyst. Toritani barely made it into second safely and came home after Hirokazu Ibata hit an RBI single. Japan went on to win 4-3 in the 10th.

The play seemed to re-energize Japan, and the team has played with a different swagger since then.

Japan blasted the Netherlands 16-4 two nights later, and beat the Dutch again on Tuesday. This after recording just a pair of extra base hits and scoring 13 runs in three first-round games.

Simply, this Japan team would’ve wiped the floor with the bunch Yamamoto deployed during the first round in Fukuoka.

Ibata, who has come up with big hit after big hit, and Yoshio Itoi have played well throughout the WBC, but signs of life from Shinnosuke Abe, Hayato Sakamoto, and Nobuhiro Matsuda, among others, in the second round should have Japan dreaming big.

On the mound, while Tanaka was handed the role of ace before the tournament, Kenta Maeda has gone out and earned it on the field.

Maeda has made two appearances in the WBC, one in each round, and has gone 2-0, struck out 19, and allowed two hits in 10 scoreless innings.

With the WBC’s pitch limit upped to 90 for the championship round, the Hiroshima Carp ace has a chance to really put his stamp on the tournament.

“I’ve been able to pitch well so far, and hopefully I can keep it up in the semifinals to give the team a chance to advance to the final,” Maeda said.

A number of players stepped up during the second round, and instead of heading to the U.S. just happy to be among the final four, Japan has started to resemble a team that can bring home the hardware again.

“Having gotten through the Taiwan game, we’ve somewhat broken out (of a collective slump),” Inaba said.

Japan isn’t likely to replicate the performance it unleashed in two games against the Netherlands — 26 runs, eight home runs and six doubles in 16 innings (one game was called in the seventh due to the WBC mercy rule) — but Yamamoto has plenty of good, smart players who can string together a few hits, draw walks, steal bases, and score against any of the remaining teams in the field.

Tadashi Settsu has pitched well out of the bullpen, and Tanaka has seemingly found his footing with his breaking pitches, and was mostly solid in relief during the second round, giving Yamamoto a potential trump card to play late in a close game.

Just a few weeks ago, it was even money on whether or not this team would even reach the final round.

The Japanese needed a three-run eighth to rally past Brazil for a 5-3 win in their opening game, then let China hang around in a 5-2 win.

The first round ended with a 6-3 loss to Cuba, during which Japan was shut out for 8 1/3 innings, before a Cuban meltdown allowed Yamamoto’s club to sneak across a few runs.

“We really struggled in the first round and in the game against Taiwan,” Abe said Tuesday. “We’ve really become a better team having gone through those tough games, and we can go to the (United) States in a better condition.”

Abe had better be right, because the final few kilometers of the road to a third consecutive WBC title will be fraught with peril.

Japan, which left for the U.S Tuesday night, will face the Pool 2 runnerup in the semifinals on Sunday, which means a showdown against either the powerful Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico or the United States.

“There are stronger and more powerful teams in the other Pool,” Abe said. “Hopefully we can bring our level up enough to compete against whoever comes up.

“We’ve come all this way. We want to give everything we’ve got.”