SAN FRANCISCO - If Kenta Maeda gets the start for Japan against Puerto Rico on Sunday, he’ll be pitching in the biggest game of his life.
Maeda has been one of Japan’s premier pitchers over the past few seasons, but his Hiroshima Carp haven’t been very successful during that span. So a start in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic will come with more pressure than the right-hander has ever dealt with.
“I’ve pitched twice in the WBC and this is the first international tournament for me,” Maeda said. “The next game will be the biggest experience for me. I think that will be a good experience for me.”
Maeda has been outstanding for Japan in his two appearances in the WBC. He struck out six and allowed a hit in five scoreless innings against China in his first start, and struck out nine over five scoreless innings, again allowing a single hit, against the Netherlands in the second round.
Japan will face a Puerto Rico team that qualified for the semifinals by eliminating the United States on Friday night. Puerto Rico fell 2-0 against the Dominican Republic Saturday afternoon, consigning the team to a second-place finish in Pool 2.
“They’ve got great physical abilities for sure,” catcher Shinnoske Abe said. “Of course they’ve got great power, and that’s something we can’t counter.”
Japan is aiming for its third consecutive trip to the WBC final, after winning the prior two tournaments, and manager Koji Yamamoto isn’t about to let the gravity of the situation weigh him down too much.
“I’ve been feeling the pressure since the first pool,” he said, “and I’ve survived up to here.”
The Japanese practiced at AT&T Park Saturday night, spending a few hours getting acclimated to the San Francisco Giants’ home field. The team was originally supposed to work out in the morning, but had their practice time shifted to 7 p.m. because of a delay in their equipment arriving.
The delay could work in the team’s favor. Japan was inside at Fukuoka’s Yafuoku Dome and Tokyo Dome during the first two rounds of the WBC, then played day games in warmer conditions during a pair of practice contests in Arizona. Sunday’s contest will be Japan’s first night game outside in the elements, so Saturday’s practice gave the players a chance to test the conditions they’ll be facing.
“This is our first night game played outside, so we were able to check how flyballs would go, and the wind,” Abe said.
The game will probably come down to pitching, where the Japanese could have the advantage, provided Maeda continues his string of solid outings.
The Carp ace got a chance to visit with players who have pitched in prior World Baseball Classics during Japan’s brief stop in Arizona between the second and semifinals rounds. They told him to expect to have to pitch through a lot of pressure.
“It may look easier from the outside,” Maeda said. “But there are things you never really understand until you experience it yourself.”
As a reward for their latest victory, the Dominicans get a World Baseball Classic rematch against the team that eliminated them in 2009.
Wandy Rodriguez pitched six innings, and three relievers completed a three-hitter to help the unbeaten Dominican Republic top Puerto Rico 2-0 Saturday.
Both teams had already qualified for the semifinals in San Francisco, and the game merely determined seedings. Puerto Rico plays two-time defending champion Japan on Sunday night, and the Dominicans face the Netherlands on Monday night, with the winners advancing to the championship game Tuesday.
The Dominicans were eliminated from the 2009 WBC when they lost twice to the Netherlands in a stunning first-round upset.
“We’re not thinking of the past; we’re thinking of the present,” Dominican manager Tony Pena said. “They’re going to be tough. We’re going to be tough also.”
Puerto Rico will face Japan for the first time.
“They’re the two-time champions of the WBC for a reason,” Puerto Rican manager Edwin Rodriguez said. “They know how to play the game, and they put a lot of emphasis on the little things. We’ll have to play an almost perfect game.”