There’s one big positive Japan can take out of the opening game of the 2016 Samurai Japan Challenge, which is meant to help the team prepare for the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
At least this wasn’t the real thing.
Mexico scored two runs to break a tie in the sixth inning as manager Edgar Gonzalez, a former Yomiuri Giants player, returned to his old stomping ground to lead his team to a 7-3 win over the Japanese national team on Thursday at Tokyo Dome.
“I feel very happy, very happy that we got the first win,” Gonzalez said. “I know (Japan) is a very tough team.”
The four-game exhibition series — Japan will play Mexico again before facing the Netherlands twice — was scheduled to help Japan with its preparations for the WBC. The Japanese team didn’t get off to a great start, stranding a number of runners early as the Mexican pitchers struggled with the strike zone. Japan loaded the bases with one out twice, in the first and third innings, and walked away with only one run to show for it.
“They (the Mexican pitchers) were really moving the ball,” said Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters slugger Sho Nakata, who went 0-for-4 in the cleanup spot for Japan. “I’m disappointed that I didn’t live up to expectations. I’m frustrated with myself.”
Japan managed just five hits against the Mexicans, who ended up using nine pitchers during the game.
“You don’t really get to face them, so I was trying to get the timing down from the bench,” said shortstop Hayato Sakamoto. “You face pitchers you don’t really know at international tournaments, so you’ve got to make adjustments.”
Gonzalez said there was no strategy behind using so many pitchers. His starter, Jose Oyervides, struggled with his control and had walked four batters before being pulled in the first inning. From there, Gonzalez said he simply didn’t want to let the Japanese hitters get used to any one pitcher.
“Our starting pitcher had trouble throwing strikes, so we had to maneuver from then on,” he said.
The Japanese pitchers didn’t have a great game either, combining to allow seven runs — six earned — on the night. They were using balls that will be used during the WBC, which differ from those in NPB. Pitching coach Hiroshi Gondo, however, refused to use that as an excuse.
“Being a professional player means you have no excuses,” Gondo said. “You’ve got a chance to get used to it in the bullpen and by using proper rosin bags and things like that.”
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, of the Yokohama BayStars, drove in two runs for Japan in the loss. Shohei Otani, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ much-hyped two-way star, made a pinch-hit appearance in the eighth, with a man on second, but struck out swinging.
“It’s just one at-bat,” Gonzalez said when asked for his opinion of Otani. “It’s hard to pinch-hit off the bench. I know how hard it is, I did it in the major leagues. I didn’t get anything out of it. I know he’s still a good hitter and still very dangerous. I’m just glad he wasn’t in the lineup because it would’ve been a little different.”
Even with their best player, Los Angeles Dodgers star Adrian Gonzalez, the manager’s brother, not playing (though on the roster and with the team) the Mexicans came up with enough hits to beat the home team and overcome a shaky start.
Alex Verdugo had an game-tying RBI double for Mexico in the fourth.
“I was grateful to have the opportunity to hit with a runner on and to potentially tie the game up,” he said. “I have to thank my team for that. We knew from the start of the game that it was going to be tough to get runs against these pitchers.
Esteban Quiroz hit a solo homer and Ramiro Pena and Asael Sanchez also drove in runs for the Mexicans. Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles infielder Japhet Amador was credited with an RBI after getting hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in the ninth.
“I’m surprised myself (that it went out) but I hit it hard,” Quiroz said of his home run off Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks pitcher Kodai Senga. “I’m honored to have been selected to the Mexican national team, so I’ll keep playing hard to represent my country.”
The Mexicans came up with 10 hits in all, perhaps none bigger than the one by Amadeo Zazuzeta with the score knotted at 2-2 in the sixth.
He came to the plate with two outs and runners on first and second and hit a fly ball that found a place to land in shallow right, near the foul line, and was enough to bring the lead runner around to score. A throwing error by first baseman Sho Nakata, who fielded the ball, on the same play allowed the runner from first to score as well, giving the Mexicans a 4-2 lead.
“I was able to get enough of it,” Zazuzeta said. “I’m glad I was able to contribute to the team. I had the impression that he had a good splitter. We are very motivated to play as the Mexican team and the mood on the bench is good.”
Rafael Martin was credited with the win, while Senga took the loss.
Hiroshima Carp pitcher Yusuke Nomura will get the start for Japan on Friday, with Mexico going with Hector Daniel Rodriguez on the mound.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.
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