The fans waited as Nobuhiro Matsuda rounded the bases and exchanged high-fives with his teammates. They knew what was coming, and when Matsuda pumped his fist and let out a guttural yell, as is his custom after home runs, the Japanese fans packed in Tokyo Dome exploded with enough force to knock the roof off the Big Egg.
Matsuda hit a three-run home run in the fifth inning, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo added a two-run shot in the seventh, and the Japanese put up enough runs to overcome a leaky bullpen and get their 2017 World Baseball Classic campaign off to a roaring start with an 11-6 victory over Cuba on Tuesday night.
“It was a see-saw game, and they could’ve caught up to us,” said Norichika Aoki, the lone MLB player on Japan’s roster. “It’s great that we ended up protecting our lead. It was really a good game.”
Matsuda finished with four hits and drove in four runs, three on a three-run homer in the fifth. The Fukuoka Softbanks Hawks star slumped through Japan’s five warmup contests, going 2-for-11, but saw his bat come to life in the first game that counted.
“Today was a new start,” Matsuda said. “That’s how I felt and that was the only thing I was thinking about.”
One inning after Tetsuto Yamada had a likely home run taken away because of an overzealous fan, Matsuda crushed Jose Garcia’s 0-1 pitch, a 127-kph curveball, with two runners on to provide the highlight of a five run inning that ended with Japan leading 7-1.
After the Cubans closed the gap to 7-4 in the top of the seventh, Tsutsugo responded by tacking on two runs with his homer in the bottom half. Cuba scored two more runs in the top of the eighth, but Japan answered with two of its own in the bottom half to make it 11-6.
“It didn’t feel that good,” Tsutsugo said of the contact he made on the homer. “The more runs we score the better, so I’m glad it gave us some additional runs.”
The Japanese offense began to have its way with the Cubans as the game went on. Japan finished with 14 hits, with Matsuda leading the way. Tsutsugo finished 2-for-4 with three RBIs. Yamada, Ryosuke Kikuchi, Hayato Sakamoto and Seiji Kobayashi also drove in runs.
Starting pitcher Ayumu Ishikawa allowed a run on two hits in four innings of work. He struck out one and walked one.
“I had tough time finding the strike zone and threw some hittable pitches,” Ishikawa said. “I wasn’t really able to locate my breaking balls either. I’ll do my best next time.”
The only downside for the Japanese was the performance of their bullpen. Takahiro Norimoto allowed three runs, while Yoshihisa Hirano was charged with a pair.
“There was a big lead, but the Cubans never gave up,” Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said. “We gave up five runs in the late innings, that’s something we have to fix.
Alfredo Despaigne had a solo homer for Cuba and Guillermo Aviles and Yurisbel Gracial drove in two runs each. Alexander Ayala recorded an RBI with a sacrifice fly.
“Japan is top-class, Cuban manager Carlos Marti said. “That’s without a doubt.”
Japan took a 1-0 lead in the first inning on an RBI single by Tsutsugo.
Speedy Cuban center fielder Yoelkis Cespedes, younger brother of New York Mets outfielder Yoenis, led off the top of the third with a double to left. Ayala followed with a hard-hit ball to center that was caught by Aoki at the wall, but deep enough to bring Cespedes home to tie the score.
Matsuda hit a one-out single in the fourth and advanced to second after Kobayashi laid down a sacrifice bunt. Yamada then hit what looked to be a two-run home run, but the umpires stopped him at second. The play was reviewed — with the replay showing a fan reaching over the fence and grabbing the ball, which may have still gotten over, — and ultimately ruled a double. That was still enough to score the run and give Japan a 2-1. lead.
Sho Nakata drew a one-out walk in the fifth and then stole second. He was driven in by Sakamoto, to make the score 3-1.
“Sho stole the base, so I stepped to the plate thinking I needed to drive him in no matter what,” Sakamoto said.
Seiya Suzuki drew a walk, and Matsuda’s home run made the score 6-1. Kikuchi singled in another run later in the inning to make it 7-1.
Cuba began to claw its way back in the seventh against Norimoto. Despaigne led off the inning with a home run, and Aviles drove in two more with a single to center that made the score 7-4.
Tsutsugo’s home run made it 9-4 in the seventh, but Gracial kept Cuba close with a two-run double in the eighth.
Matsuda singled in his fourth run in the bottom of the eighth and Kobayashi added a sacrifice fly later in the inning.
Staff Writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report