Yuki Yanagita barely even watched the flight of the ball.
Why bother? Everyone already knew where it was headed anyway.
Yanagita hit a mammoth sayonara two-run home run to center off San Diego Padres closer Kirby Yates to cap a ninth-inning comeback as Samurai Japan rallied for a 7-6 win over the MLB All-Stars in Game 1 of the Japan All-Star Series on Friday night in front of a crowd of 44,934 at Tokyo Dome.
“It was a perfect shot,” Yanagita said.
It was looking like an MLB kind of night before Yanagita’s heroics.
Amed Rosario hit a solo homer, Carlos Santana added a three-run shot and Juan Soto hit a two-run blast for the MLB team, which took a 6-4 advantage into the ninth inning.
“Our pitchers gave up a lot runs, but they were actually getting hit hard. It wasn’t as if they were walking a lot of guys or making a lot of mistakes,” Japan manager Atsunori Inaba said. “So I thought we could come back.”
The Japanese scored three-runs in the ninth, with Yanagita’s shot hitting the base of the batter’s eye in center field.
“He did what he does,” Japan starter Takayuki Kishi said.
Seiji Uebayashi hit a one-out single in the ninth and stole second before Shogo Akiyama struck out. Tsubasa Aizawa drove him in with a single to center to make the score 6-5. Aizawa’s hit also gave Yanagita the chance to end the game.
“It was a pitch probably that he should’ve hit,” said MLB coach Hensley Meulens. “But he didn’t miss it. Credit to him. They kept coming and they persevered and they pulled it off.”
Rounding the bases with the crowd roaring and ecstatic teammates coming out on the field should be a familiar feeling for Yanagita.
The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks star ended Game 5 of the Japan Series in similar fashion on Nov. 2, hitting a walk-off shot in the 10th inning to end that game.
“It’ll be a good memory,” Yanagita said of Friday’s homer. “Hopefully I’ll be able to hit more.”
It might be a memory the MLB players would like to forget.
“No matter how you look at it, it’s tough to take a game like that,” MLB manager Don Mattingly said. “You feel like you played well enough to win.”
Despite the result, Mattingly said his team performed better than in Thursday’s 9-6 win over the Yomiuri Giants in an exhibition game.
“I thought we played much better today, a much cleaner game,” Mattingly said. “In general, we had one tough play in center where the ball bounces over Ronald’s head, but we end up getting out of that,” he added, referring to outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr.
“So it was a much cleaner game for us tonight as far as execution and playing defense and making them earn everything. And they earned it tonight.”
Inaba was happy with the way his team was able to seize the moment in the ninth inning.
“That’s what I’d like to emphasize to all my hitters,” Inaba said. “That we should be able to maintain a good situation from one hitter to another so that we will be able to score runs.”
Rosario had a big night for the big leaguers, finishing with a single, double and his solo homer. Fan favorite Yadier Molina was 3-for-5 for the MLB team.
Reliever Yasuaki Yamasaki earned the win after a scoreless ninth. Yates was charged with the loss.
Akiyama tied the game in the fifth with a three-run double for Japan, his only hit of the night.
Kishi got the start for Japan, but was lifted in the fifth after reaching the series’ 80-pitch limit (pitchers can go beyond 80 if they hit the limit in the middle of an at-bat). The left-hander allowed four hits and was charged with three runs over 4 1/3 innings.
“I was nervous throughout and I couldn’t really take the time to enjoy it,” Kishi said. “Even though there is a pitch limit, I was able to pitch my way. But I didn’t want to leave the mound in the middle of an inning.”
Game 2 of the six-game series is Saturday night back at Tokyo Dome. Naoyuki Uwasawa will get the start for Japan. Erasmo Ramirez is scheduled to take the mound for the major leaguers.
“All of the players were able to do what they needed to do and we were really aiming for a victory, and that’s what we were able to do,” Akiyama said. “I think this give us a lot of confidence for the rest of the series, so we’d like to keep it going.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report