The game was supposed to only be a dress rehearsal for next year’s World Baseball Classic. But the atmosphere during the ninth inning at Tokyo Dome made it feel a whole lot like the real thing.
A game of late, wild momentum shifts finally settled in Japan’s favor when Shota Ono hit a sayonara single in the 10th inning to give his team a 9-8 win over the Netherlands in the 2016 Samurai Japan Challenge on Saturday night at the Big Egg.
“It doesn’t really feel real,” Ono said. “Like did I really do that? I was hoping it would drop. Because (pitcher Toshiya) Okada was doing so well, I wanted to win it there.”
Japan is now 2-1 during the four-game exhibition series. The Japanese split two games against Mexico on Thursday and Friday, and will play the Dutch in the finale on Sunday.
Japan was two outs away from a nine-inning victory when the Netherlands rallied for three runs against the Hiroshima Carp’s Daichi Osera in the top of the inning to take an 8-7 lead.
The Netherlands were just an out away in the bottom half, but their second baseman committed a throwing error, on a ground ball hit by the Carp’s Seiya Suzuki, allowing the tying run to score.
With the WBC tiebreak rules in effect, the Netherlands began the 10th with runners on first and second. Both advanced on a wild pitch and Sharion Schoop walked with two outs to load the bases against Chunichi Dragons pitcher Okada. The lefty retired the next batter to get out of the inning unscathed.
“I wanted to get one out at a time and I just focused on that,” Okada said.
Shohei Otani grounded out to begin Japan’s half, and the Netherlands intentionally walked the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks’ Nobuhiro Matsuda to load the bases with one out. Fighters catcher Ono came through with a single to right to give Japan a thrilling victory.
“I don’t know what to say, but we’ve finally experienced a tiebreaker, something we’re not used to, and that’s a positive (with the WBC in mind),” Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said. “We’ve done simulations, but this is the first time we’ve had to do it in a game.”
Okada was credited with the win for Japan. Former Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher Loek van Mil was charged with the loss after allowing the game-winning hit.
“It’s a tough game to lose,” said Netherlands manager Hensley Muelens. “We battled back. After being ahead in the game early, we gave up six runs in the one inning. We couldn’t throw a strike, and they scored six. We came back and scored three in the top of the ninth, then we made two errors in the ninth, so they tied the game.
“One strike away, ground ball to second, looked like we had an out at second base, but he decided to throw to first and threw it wide.”
The Fighters’ Otani finished 2-for-5 with a double and a solo home run.
Otani’s homer sparked a six-run fifth inning that helped Japan erase a four-run deficit.
Japan had struck first with an RBI groundout by Nakata in the first inning, but an RBI single by Dashenko Ricardo and a two-run single by Nick Urbanus gave the Dutch a 3-1 lead in the second.
Kalian Sams made it 5-1 with a two-run homer in the top of the fifth.
Otani then went deep to lead off the bottom half of the inning.
“The count was full, so I thought I might be able to draw a walk,” Otani said. “The home run was an accident.”
After Otani’s homer, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles catcher Motohiro Shima drew a one-out walk later in the inning. The Seibu Lions’ Shogo Akiyama hit a two-out single, and a walk drawn by Carp second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi loaded the bases. Sakamoto cleared them with a double to left that tied the score at 5-5.
“I was looking for a pitch I could hit,” Sakamoto said. “I was able to come through with one swing because everyone else set the table.”
The Fighters’ Sho Nakata gave Japan the lead with an RBI single to center, and Yokohama BayStars slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo padded the advantage with a run-scoring double.
“Nakata got a hit before me, so I was relaxed when I stepped up to the plate,” Tsutsugo said. “The cheering in the stadium was great, and I fed off that.”
Otani came back around and grounded out, but when the dust had settled, Japan had scored six runs and taken a 7-5 lead. The lead held until the fireworks in the ninth.
Akiyama had a pair of hits to improve to 5-for-12, with four RBIs, in Japan’s three games. Sakamoto was 1-for-3 with three RBIs. The Yomiuri Giants star should be a familiar face to many Dutch fans, as he hit a grand slam the last time the teams met at Tokyo Dome, during the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Nakata was credited with two RBIs on the night, and Tsutsugo also drove in a run.
The final game of the exhibition series is scheduled for Sunday at Tokyo Dome.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report