Aikawa’s clutch eighth-inning homer gives Japan comeback win over Australia


Two-time defending World Baseball Classic champion Japan endured a scare on Saturday one week before the start of the 2013 tournament, but backup catcher Ryoji Aikawa rescued his team with a three-run, eighth-inning homer in a 3-2 victory over Australia.

Koji Yamamoto’s Samurai Japan prevailed in the first of its two exhibition games as the teams prepare for the start of the WBC on March 2. Japan will open the defense of the titles won in 2006 and 2009 in Fukuoka in Pool A, while Australia is grouped in Pool B in Taichung, Taiwan.

Trailing 2-0 with one out in the eighth and just one hit on the scoreboard, Sho Nakata and Hirokazu Ibata hit back-to-back singles off lefty Steven Kent, who served up a 3-1 pitch that Aikawa just got over the left-field wall. The Yakult Swallows catcher came on in the top of the eighth as a defensive replacement and made a difference in his only at-bat.

Hanshin Tigers lefty Atsushi Nomi threw three scoreless innings to earn the win in relief. Seibu Lions submariner Kazuhisa Makita worked a 1-2-3 ninth to earn the save.

Japan starter Masahiro Tanaka, who floundered in his previous outing on Sunday, shot himself in the foot with poor command, giving up two runs in the first inning, and allowing four hits, two walks and a hit batsman over three frames, while striking out three.

“It’s the same as last time,” said Tanaka, who has been named to start Japan’s WBC opener against Brazil on March 2. “Today, too, I struggled in the first inning, and let them score. But as the game progressed into the second and third innings, it felt like I could respond in the way I usually do.”

Tanaka ran the count full on three batters and the first two times it cost him.

The right-hander issued one-out walks either side of a smash single up the middle. Justin Huber, who played with the Hiroshima Carp in 2010, was hit with the first pitch he saw from Tanaka to push across a run. Mike Walker hit a high chopper to Tanaka that resulted in a groundout but brought in Australia’s second run. Tanaka got out of the inning with a called third strike to Matt Kennelly.

Former Hanshin Tigers right-hander Chris Oxspring took the mound for Australia in the first and issued a two-out walk before catching Japan captain Shinnosuke Abe looking at an outside pitch for the third out.

Japan’s defense prevented a run in the top of second after Australia had two more hits against Tanaka. With one out and runners on the corners, left fielder Seiichi Uchikawa caught a medium-deep fly, and a letter-perfect relay from his Hawks teammate, third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda, gave Yomiuri Giants catcher Abe the time to apply the tag. Chris Snelling, who was out at the plate, was replaced in right field in the bottom of the inning.

Oxspring, who pitched 16 games for Hanshin in 2006 but was not re-signed after going 4-3 with a 5.12 ERA and is currently looking for employment, had an impressive outing. The 35-year-old walked two and struck out three in two hitless innings. Australia’s second pitcher, side-armer Dushan Ruzic allowed just a walk in two scoreless innings.

Japan did not manage a hit until Nobuhiro Matsuda led off the bottom of the fifth with a ground single against former Yomiuri Giants farmhand Adam Bright.

Japan’s second hurler, southpaw Toshiya Sugiuchi, set to play in his third WBC, steadied the ship by allowing just one hit over two innings.

“It’s been a while since I’ve thrown two innings,” said the 32-year-old Sugiuchi, who finished the 2012 season on the sidelines with shoulder trouble. “I’m glad I was able to pitch the way I expect. Next time I want to throw a little longer if I can.”

While Japan couldn’t hit Australia’s pitching, the visitors were plagued by walks. A pair of pitchers loaded the bases with walks in the bottom of the seventh but a two-out smash back to the box was cleanly handled by Kent, who threw Uchikawa out to put out the fire.