Norimoto, three relievers toss combined no-hitter against MLB All-Stars

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Takahiro Norimoto didn’t have any problems during his matchup against a lineup of major league hitters. Yuki Nishi didn’t have many either, nor did Kazuhisa Makita or even Yuji Nishino.

No problems for the Japanese pitchers equaled no hits for the major league batters.

Norimoto retired all 15 batters he faced and teamed with Nishi, Makita and Nishino on a four-man combined no-hitter to help Samurai Japan to a 4-0 win in Game 3 of the MLB-Japan All-Star Series on Saturday night at Tokyo Dome. It was the first no-hitter by a Japanese team in the history of the series between Japanese and MLB teams.

“I did more than I thought I was capable of,” Norimoto said. “It felt so great. This is a big stage we’re playing on, so I’d say it was the best pitching I’ve ever done.”

Japan has won all three games so far and is assured a majority of victories in the five-game series.

“It was our goal to win the series, so I’m happy we’ve achieved that,” said Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo. “Especially in game that made history with the first no-hitter by Japanese pitchers.”

Hayato Sakamoto and Sho Nakata provided the offense for Japan, each hitting a two-run home run, and second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi helped preserve the no-hitter with a sliding stop and throw to first on a hard-hit ball by Carlos Santana with one out in the ninth.

“I’m so happy that we were able to win the series,” Nakata said. “I wasn’t really able to contribute to the team in the first two games, and finally I was able to contribute to a win in the game that clinched the series.”

Norimoto took over as the ace of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles this year after Masahiro Tanaka’s departure to the major leagues following the 2013 season and was a 14-game winner. He’s no stranger to big games, having pitched in Game 1 of the 2013 Japan Series and winning Game 5 of the series in relief. This was his first time against a group of MLBers, and once again he rose to the occasion.

“He attacked the strike zone,” MLB manager John Farrell said. “I think when you have that power of 94-96 (mph) with some late action … very difficult pitcher to face.

“Even in some fastball counts, he did an outstanding job of locating his fastball down at the bottom of the strike zone for a couple of called strikes to get back in the count. On a night like tonight, you tip your hat to a very good pitcher.”

Norimoto struck out six over five perfect innings. He made the pitches he needed when behind in the count to send batter after batter back to the dugout.

The most trouble he had was against a pair of Tampa Bay Rays players in the fourth. He began that inning by falling behind 3-1 to Ben Zobrist and got a fly out on the very next pitch. He was behind Evan Longoria 3-1 later in the inning and got a called strike and swinging strike to end that at-bat and the inning.

“It was the best performance of my life” Norimoto said. “Shima led me well, and I just followed his instructions,” he added, referring to catcher Motohiro Shima, his regular battery mate on the Eagles.

Kokubo pulled Norimoto after five innings with his pitch count at 60 (with 38 strikes). Nishi took over and was almost as stingy.

“Norimoto was pitching so great, and I wanted to do as much as I could to follow that,” Nishi said. “Actually, when I came out, I heard a few sighs from the fans, so it was a little tough.”

Nishi walked a batter and hit Robinson Cano but kept the no-hitter alive for two innings.

“I was so nervous out there, I thought if I could perform the way I usually do, it would be fine,” Nishi said.

By the time Nishi was pulled for Makita, nearly everyone in the Big Egg was aware there was a chance of a no-hitter. Norimoto admitted that some on the Japan bench began to talk about it after Nishi’s first inning of work.

Makita came on in relief in the eighth and walked two in a shaky-at-times performance but didn’t allow a hit.

“I was about to puke in the bullpen,” Makita joked. “I couldn’t throw anything for strikes and I wasn’t sure of what to do, but I knew I’d be OK if I just pitched my own game.”

Nishino closed things out in the ninth.

He struck out Jose Altuve after a lengthy at-bat to begin the inning, and Kikuchi’s great play at second robbed Santana of a base knock. Nishino then retired Justin Morneau, this season’s NL batting champion, to end the game.

Sakamoto notched his only hit of the night with his home run in the second. Homering at the Big Egg is nothing new to Sakamoto, a star shortstop for the Yomiuri Giants who calls Tokyo Dome home during the regular season.

Nakata, who went on a homer spree during the Climax Series that nearly helped lift the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters into the Japan Series, hit his shot in the third, after a single by Nobuhiro Matsuda.

For the MLB All-Stars, it was another dud offensively.

“They pitched very, very well tonight,” Farrell said.

The MLB team has been now been shut out twice in three games.

Cano, who was hit by Nishi in the seventh, left Tokyo Dome during the game to get X-rays on his little toe. Farrell said during his postgame news conference he hadn’t seen any results yet of Cano’s examination.

“If there was one thing I wish I could have back, it was the pitch that hit Cano,” Nishi said.

Samurai Japan will try to make it four straight on Sunday night at Tokyo Dome. Shintaro Fujinami is scheduled to take the mound against Chris Capuano, who will get the ball for the MLB squad.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.