TAOYUAN, TAIWAN - Samurai Japan is returning home with no problem.
Starting pitcher Kenta Maeda gave Japan a stellar outing behind its 13-hit offensive effort in a 9-3 victory over Puerto Rico in the Premier 12 quarterfinals at Taoyuan International Stadium on Monday night.
Japan, the cohost of the inaugural World Baseball Softball Confederation global championship, rolls into the semifinal round at Tokyo Dome.
Samurai Japan will play a rematch against South Korea at 7 p.m. on Thursday. Japan defeated South Korea 5-0 in the tournament opener in Sapporo on Nov. 8.
Maeda (1-0) threw seven innings, allowing four hits. He struck out seven batters, avenging a loss to Puerto Rico in the 2013 World Baseball Classic semifinals.
“I got the nod to start in the game we couldn’t afford to lose,” Maeda said after the game. “But I was able to get my job done. Plus, I carried some frustration over from my previous outing against Mexico (last Wednesday), in which I didn’t do my pitching. I was given the role to pitch in this important quarterfinal game, so I definitely wanted to help the team win and I’m really pleased that I did that.”
Against Puerto Rico, Japan’s bats clicked, and it gave Maeda some breathing room. Japan sat cleanup hitter Takeya Nakamura as he had a right leg injury in Sunday’s game against Venezuela, but it didn’t affect its run-scoring ability.
Up 2-0 in the fourth, Hayato Sakamoto extended the lead to four for Japan with a two-run RBI double. Japan piled up five more runs later in the game to secure the win.
Sakamoto, a Yomiuri Giants star, went 2-for-5 with three RBIs. Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, who hit in the No. 4 spot for the absent Nakamura, accumulated three hits and an RBI.
Akira Nakamura, who made the starting lineup for the second time in the tournament, was 2-for-3 with a pair of RBIs and scored three times.
Japan was on pace to post a shutout win, but closer Hirotoshi Masui allowed a three-run homer to Joiset Feliciano in the ninth.
Puerto Rico, which grabbed its quarterfinal berth through a hard-fought tiebreaker win over cohost Taiwan on Sunday, actually had a chance to score a lot earlier. It came up with two singles and had runners on first and third with one away in the second, but failed to score as Maeda coaxed the next batter, Aldo Mendez, to hit into a double play.
“That was what Maeda does and it made us think that we could really compete,” Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said. “And with the two runs Sakamoto gave us, we thought we would have an advantage in the remainder of the game.”
Kokubo described Nakamura’s injury as a minor one and hinted that the Seibu Lions slugger could come return to the lineup as early as the semifinals. The skipper revealed that he made up his mind to go with the red-hot Sho Nakata, who usually bats cleanup for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, to fill Nakamura’s spot on Sunday night, but he changed the plan when he woke up on Monday.
“The order (Nakata hitting after Tsutsugo) has been working in the Premier (12), and I thought that it’d be better to not change it,” Kokubo said.
Nakata batted fifth in that game. Tsutsugo, who bats fourth for the Yokohama BayStars, didn’t dwell on the batting order, but tried to do his job no matter where he’d hit.
“I didn’t have particular emotions about it, because I was just given the spot for the injured Nakamura,” Tsutsugo said. “And Nakata was still hitting behind me, so I just played as hard as I could like I always do.”
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez, who guided his team into the gold-medal game in the WBC two years ago, tipped his cap to Samurai Japan.
“Japan is such a high-level team,” Rodriguez said through an interpreter. “Both offensively and defensively, they proved they play at a high level.
“We formed our team with players that play in the (United) States and players that don’t. But it was a good experience for them and I would like them to do better, taking advantage of these good experiences at international competitions, going forward.”
At Taichung Intercontinental Stadium, South Korea downed Cuba 7-2, also collecting 13 hits. The Asian country capped a five-run second inning to take the initiative early.
Kokubo revealed that fireballer Shohei Otani would start again for Japan in the final-four round. The 21-year-old tamed South Korea in the opener, allowing two hits and no runs in six innings.
“Otani did so perfectly against them on the other occasion,” Kokubo said. “So they’ll come in the game with a lot of scouting on him. It’ll be great if he holds them like he did the previous time, but we should be ready that he won’t be able to shut them down as well as he did the last time. In that case, our offense needs to score some runs, and we have to be careful about our pitching relays, too.”
The teams that have advanced to the semifinals — Japan, South Korea, the United States and Mexico — were all Group B countries in the first and quarterfinal round.
The Team USA-Mexico game is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. on Thursday at the Big Egg.