Samurai Japan’s young players grabbed their manager, Astunori Inaba, and threw him in the air once and then twice, before seemingly needing a few seconds to regroup before sending him up once more.
It was about the only thing that didn’t go smoothly for Japan in the final round of the inaugural Asia Professional Baseball Championship (APBC). Then again, this tournament was about the future, and Inaba’s band of under-24s have plenty of time to work on their victory toss technique.
Kazuto Taguchi threw seven scoreless innings, Shuta Tonosaki sparked a big night at the plate with a pair of RBIs and Inaba led Japan to a title in his managerial debut with a 7-0 thumping of South Korea in the APBC final in front of a crowd of 30,498 on Sunday night at Tokyo Dome.
“It feels great,” Inaba said. “It was a tournament for younger players this time, but they certainly shouldered the responsibility of the national flag, competed well and were united as one.”
It was Inaba’s first tournament in charge of the team. The former player was named the manager on July 31, with an eye on winning the gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The APBC was the first step on the road to 2020.
“We still have three more years,” Inaba said. “But the number of times we can come together is limited. As manager, I will have to study more so we can build a good team three years from now.”
Tonosaki, who finished 2-for-3 with two RBIs in the final was named the tournament’s MVP. The Seibu Lions infielder was 6-for-13 with a home run and four RBIs overall. He repeatedly led the team’s pregame huddle to help fire up his teammates before their games.
“My teammates set the table for me and I just tried to live up to their expectations,” Tonosaki said. “When we huddled up before the game, I told them we should play with positive energy. I’m pleased it turned out the way it did.”
The Japanese won all three games they played. Inaba’s club slipped by the Koreans 8-7 in a 10-inning thriller in Thursday’s opening game before blasting Taiwan 8-2 on Saturday night.
“After such a hard-fought battle in our first game, I was wondering how today’s game would go, because South Korea is great in terms of both hitting and pitching,” Inaba said. “Taguchi gave us a great performance and it set the tone for our hitters.”
Sunday’s rematch with Korea came two years to the day of the 2015 Premier 12 semifinal between the two nations. Japan starter Shohei Otani was dominant on the mound for seven innings in that one, leaving with a 3-0 lead. The Koreans then rallied against the Japanese bullpen, scoring four runs in the ninth en route to a 4-3 win.
“I have a vivid memory of the Premier 12 game, especially the latter part,” said Inaba, who was a Samurai Japan batting coach at the time. “So for today’s game I didn’t care how big of a lead we built because you never know what might happen. We used our pitchers the best way we could.”
Japan didn’t let the lead slip away this time.
Taguchi was on top of his game and was the winning pitcher after keeping Korea off the scoreboard. The Yomiuri Giants lefty, who was pitching in his home park, allowed three hits, struck out six and hit one batter.
“I was very nervous at the beginning, but after getting the first hitter out, I was able to settle into my own rhythm,” Taguchi said.
The Hanshin Tigers’ Tsuyoshi Ishizaki and Yokohama BayStars closer Yasuaki Yamasaki each threw a scoreless inning of relief in the victory.
Hiroshima Carp infielder Ryoma Nishikawa led Japan at the plate with a two-run double in the fifth and a solo homer in the seventh. A pair of Lions accounted for Japan’s other four runs. Tonosaki hit RBI singles in the fourth and fifth innings, while Hotaka Yamakawa recorded a two-run single in the sixth.
Korea’s Park Se-woong, of the KBO’s Lotte Giants, allowed one run on three hits in three-plus innings and took the loss. Park struck out four and walked three.
The Korean offense was held to just three hits after coming up with 10 in the teams’ first meeting.
“I’ve been watching videos of the Korean offense over and over since the tournament began,” Taguchi said. “They have such a potent offense that can string together hits and their batters don’t really chase pitches outside the zone. So I tried to play to my own strengths, which is keeping the ball low and I was able to execute well.”
Korea’s lone APBC win was a 1-0 victory over Taiwan on Friday night.
“It wound up giving our younger players experience and good lessions to learn,” Korea manager Sun Dong-yol said. “Personally, it was my first tournament as a manager. Looking toward the Tokyo Olympics, we will have to prepare ourselves better.
Inaba is also looking to 2020.
“Because this was my first time as a manager, I think there were so many things I could’ve done better,” Inaba said. “Our players helped me, and I’m grateful to them.
“I also told our players that if they want to wear the national team uniform the for 2020 Olympics, then I want them to keep developing.”
Inaba may see many of these players again when Japan faces Australia in a pair of exhibitions on March 3 at Nagoya Dome and March 4 at Kyocera Dome.
“We are going to be looking three years ahead to some extent, so we’ll probably choose pitcher who would be the core of our team at the moment.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.