In a game featuring six-time MLB All-Star Robinson Cano, three-time All-Star Evan Longoria and 2006 AL MVP and four-time All-Star Justin Morneau, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks’ Yuki Yanagita shone brighter than all of them.
Yanagita drove in four runs and was a home run away from hitting for the cycle as Samurai Japan beat the MLB All-Stars 8-4 in Game 2 of the MLB-Japan All-Star Series on Friday night at Tokyo Dome.
“I may not be able to do as well as today (over the rest of the series) but I want to keep playing as hard as I can,” Yanagita said.
Yanagita was one of Japanese baseball’s most improved players this year, playing in all 144 games and hitting .317 with 15 home runs, 70 RBIs and 33 stolen bases for the Japan Series champion Hawks during the regular season.
His talents were on full display against the MLB team on Friday. Yanagita finished 3-for-4 with a single, double and triple, recorded a stolen base and was solid in center field.
After his big night, Yanagita was asked if the first two games were proof the gap between MLBers and their Japanese counterparts had shrunk.
“I don’t think they’re really playing seriously, are they?” he replied jokingly. “I don’t know though. Today, I was lucky that I was able to make good contact.”
The Japanese team earned a 2-0 win in Game 1 on Wednesday behind the pitching of Kenta Maeda. Game 2 was all about the Japanese team’s offensive firepower.
Ryosuke Kikuchi drove in two runs, Nobuhiro Matsuda, another Softbank Hawks player, had a solo home run among his three hits, and Hikaru Ito also drove in a run.
All but two of Japan’s runs came with two outs.
“They did a very good job of not giving in to record that third out,” said Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell, who is leading the MLB team in Japan.
Sawamura Award winner Chihiro Kaneko entered the game as one of the most talked about players in the series, along with Maeda and Shohei Otani, because of the prevailing thought he might try to move to the majors over the offseason via the posting system.
“I don’t have any time to worry about it,” Kaneko said. “I need more time to think.”
While he was able to get good movement on some of his pitches, it was an off night for the Orix Buffaloes ace, who allowed three runs, two on a home run by Morneau, this year’s NL batting champion.
“I felt good in the first inning, but in the next I should’ve been more careful, especially on that home run,” Kaneko said. “I was trying to throw a strike. When you pitch in that spot, you’d expect to get hit, and not just by major league hitters.”
Kaneko struck out five and walked two over five innings.
“He made pitches when he needed to,” Morneau said. “We never really got anything going. We never really got any rallies going or situations where we really put a lot of pressure on him. He was able to get ahead and then he was able to throw his split and get us to chase a little bit.”
It was a bitter homecoming for Seattle Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, who was touched for five runs in four innings on the mound.
“I was so nervous out there” Iwakuma said. “I couldn’t really have a good performance, but I’d been looking forward to pitching back at home, and I had a lot of fun.”
The MLB squad’s other Japanese player, pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada, allowed a pair of runs in 1 2/3 innings of relief.
Morneau’s blast in the second off Kaneko provided most of the offense for the MLB team, which was outhit 14-6. Kaneko had just given up his first hit of the night, a single to Longoria, and Morneau pounced on a misplaced fastball with the count full.
“It was the first time Kaneko had to pitch out of the stretch,” Ito said. “Before the game in the bullpen, his pitches weren’t really where he wanted them to be, and he was sort of struggling with his breaking balls.
“When we gave up the home run, we wanted to get a double play. While I was watching the first game two nights ago, I saw a lot of hitters chasing outside pitches and hitting into double plays. We wanted that to happen, but his pitch was kind of left up over the plate.”
The MLB stars weren’t able to muster much after that.
Jose Altuve briefly tied the game with an RBI groundout in the third and Cano drove in a run with a single in the bottom of the eighth.
The MLB All-Stars will try to get on track in Game 3 on Saturday, when Jeremy Guthrie goes to the mound against Samurai Japan’s Takahiro Norimoto.
“We’re here to win,” Morneau said. “You wanna represent Major League Baseball well. Whether we’re playing basketball or checkers against my wife, in the end it comes down to wanting to win.
“We’re here to try to win the series. We know we’re up against it; we need to win the next three. We’ll hopefully come out hitting tomorrow night and try to win and we’ll go from there.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.