TAOYUAN, TAIWAN – Samurai Japan, which had already secured a quarterfinal berth and first place in Group B at the Premier 12, ended the preliminary stage with an unbeaten record after a 6-5 win over Venezuela at Taoyuan International Stadium on Sunday night.
Late substitute Akira Nakamura sliced a walk-off hit to left with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the ninth to send Japan into the next round with a flourish.
Japan, which went 5-0 during the round-robin first round, will roll into the knockout round on Monday.
“I really didn’t think I’d have my turn,” said Nakamura, who came on as a pinch hitter in the seventh inning.
“But everyone set the table for me. Obviously, I knew I could finish the game in that situation, so I was determined to get a hit.”
Japan was in danger of suffering its first loss of the tournament.
After Japan grabbed a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the eighth, on a Sho Nakata RBI double, Venezuela rallied to a 5-4 advantage when pinch hitter Jose Yepez drove in two runs with a double off lefty reliever Yuki Matsui in the top of the ninth.
Japan put men on first and second with none away in the bottom half of the inning, and the runners advanced on a sacrifice bunt by Takuya Nakashima.
Venezuela intentionally walked the next hitter, Tetsuto Yamada, to load the bases. Japan’s Kenta Imamiya then scored on a wild pitch to even the game at 5-5.
The Venezuelans issued another intentional free pass, this one to Shingo Kawabata, to fill the bags again. That’s when Nakamura, the left-handed hitter, singled to the opposite field off reliever Yosue Castellano to drive home Shogo Akiyama as the sayonara run.
“When we had runners on second and third, I knew they’d intentionally walk (Kawabata),” Nakamura said. “It was a chance that my teammates made and I wanted to get the job done.”
Former major leaguer Freddie Garcia was solid on the mound for Venezuela. The 39-year-old pitcher went 7⅓ innings and gave up three runs on 123 pitches.
Japan’s starter, Yuki Nishi, worked four innings and allowed three runs. Matsui was credited with the win.
The Venezuelans could have qualified for the next round with the win, but the chance slipped out of their hands in the final moments.
“It was an unbelievable game,” said Venezuela manager Luis Sojo, a former MLB player who led the national team at the past three World Baseball Classics. “We enjoyed. We had an opportunity. Unfortunately, we didn’t come through. Baseball is always going to punish you if you don’t perform. We got the bases loaded with one out, and then two men with one out, and we didn’t come through. It was a very good game and we’ve got to give the credit to Japan.”
Catcher Juan Apodaca had three hits and two RBIs for Venezuela.
Asked to reflect on the Samurai Japan’s first-round games, skipper Hiroki Kokubo preferred to keep his eyes on the road ahead.
“It’s a knockout round and we only think about whether we win or lose from this point on,” he said.
Kokubo said Kenta Maeda would take the hill as the team’s starter in the quarterfinal game.
In other quarterfinal matchups, Canada will face Mexico, and Cuba will square off against South Korea, with both games at Taichung Intercontinental Stadium.
The United States will face the Netherlands in Taoyuan. All games were scheduled to be played Monday.
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