Samurai Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo checked one more item off his to-do list Saturday night: play an extra-inning tiebreaker like he might encounter in next March’s World Baseball Classic.
“That was a first for us,” Kokubo said after his team came from behind twice to defeat a depleted Dutch squad. “We had simulated tie-break situations in practice though, and considered various defensive options.”
Although tiebreaks have been part of international baseball since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it was the first taste of the odd system for Japan’s top men’s team.
Using the format in place for the past two WBCs, the last two batters from the ninth inning are placed on first and second base, and the next hitter in order leads off the 10th.
Samurai Japan appeared to have the edge Saturday, with the Netherlands sending the bottom of their order up, while designated hitter Shohei Otani, who had doubled and hit a massive home run earlier, opened for the hosts.
But Samurai Japan’s heroes turned out to be a pair of newcomers to Kokubo’s squad — Chunichi Dragons middle reliever Toshiya Okada and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters catcher Shota Ono.
Okada uncorked a one-out wild pitch, and with two outs, Kokubo walked the bases loaded to set up a force at the plate. But the lefty got out of trouble easily.
“There was nothing I could do but focus on getting one out at a time,” the 24-year-old said. “In these situations you have to get ahead in counts.”
With towering right-hander Loek van Mil on the mound in the 10th, the Dutch infield played in to defend against a bunt, but Kokubo — who had said he would sacrifice with any of his players except cleanup hitter Sho Nakata and Otani — didn’t offer.
“I didn’t want him to bunt into a double play, so I decided against it,” Kokubo said of Otani, whose chopper to third advanced the runners anyway. “Of course, had it been a different batter, then that would have been in the cards.”
A year after Kokubo’s lack of experience sank Japan in the Premier 12 semifinals, the skipper was prepared, although he admitted considering the dubious tactic of a bases-loaded suicide squeeze with Ono.
“In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t go there,” Kokubo said.
“This whole experience is a huge plus for us going forward, and Okada pitched really well in his first time on the team. We loaded the bases to make it easier on the defense and Okada doesn’t walk batters so we weren’t concerned.”