The big home run that turned the tide in Japan’s favor against Australia came when manager Hiroki Kokubo wasn’t looking.
Fortunately, a home run still counts whether the manager sees it or not.
Sho Nakata broke a seventh inning tie with a solo home run and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo hit his second two-run homer in as many games in the eighth to lift Japan to a 4-1 win over Australia in Pool B of the 2017 World Baseball Classic on Wednesday night at Tokyo Dome.
Kokubo was busy going over pitching assignments when Nakata was at the plate and ended up missing the big hit.
“He hit it when I was talking to the pitching coach about who was going to throw in the bullpen,” Kokubo said after the game. “So I actually didn’t see him make contact.”
Everyone else saw it. Including the Japanese fans among the announced crowd of 41,408 who broke into celebration when Nakata got his bat on a first-pitch slider that hung over the middle of the plate.
“As soon as I hit it, I was just hoping for it to go over the fence,” Nakata said.
Japan, which beat Cuba 11-6 in the Pool B opener, is 2-0 and took a huge step toward qualifying for the second round, which begins Sunday at Tokyo Dome. Israel and the Netherlands have already qualified out of Pool A.
Australia manager John Deeble remained confident his team could still join them. The Australians face China on Thursday before a showdown with Cuba on Friday.
“The plan is to win,” Deeble said. “We didn’t come here to lose. So the gameplan is to win, it’s very simple. We’re going to win tomorrow, and we’re going to go and beat Cuba and go to the second round.”
Right-hander Kodai Senga earned the win for Japan after an electric two-innings of scoreless relief. He touched 155 kph with his fastball and flummoxed the Australians with a nasty forkball.
“It was a close game, so I felt relieved that I was able to hold them to zero runs,” Senga said.
Australia’s Matt Williams took the loss.
Australia drew first blood when catcher Allan de San Miguel jumped on a curveball and took starter Tomoyuki Sugano deep to right for a solo homer in the second inning.
With Japan trailing by a run in the fifth, Hayato Sakamoto hit a ball to left, and hustled around first to turn a surefire single into a double. The effort paid off as Japan eventually got him home to tie the score on a sacrifice fly by Nobuhiro Matsuda later in the inning.
Reliever Toshiya Okada prevented Australia from retaking the lead in the bottom half by escaping a one-out bases loaded jam. When he returned to the dugout, he let out a deep sigh and was greeted enthusiastically by catcher Seiji Kobayashi.
Nakata gave the crowd a jolt with his homer in the seventh. Tsutsugo added to the lead with his two-run blast in the eighth, one night after doing the same in the seventh against Cuba.
Sugano got the start for Japan and allowed one run on four hits in 4 1/3 innings. He struck out four and hit a batter.
“I tried to let him use his best stuff and tried to let in pitch in a way that would give us the best chance to win,” Kobayashi said.
Sugano left a 1-1 affair with two runners on base. Okada walked the first batter he faced on four pitches to load the bases. He threw two more balls to James Beresford before finally getting out of the inning unscathed after Ryosuke Kikuchi started a 4-6-3 double play on a grounder up the middle.
A bullpen that sprung leaks in Tuesday night’s win over Cuba had all its bases covered against the Aussies. Okada, Senga, Naoki Miyanshi and Kazuhisa Makita, who earned the save, threw 5 2/3 scoreless innings of relief.
Australia got its only run on De San Miguel’s homer, managing five hits on the night.
“I thought we played a very good game today,” Deeble said. “I think we made probably two or three mistakes. One was the home run in the seventh inning, we left a breaking ball up, and when Tsutsugo hit the home run. I think outside of that we were perfect defensively.
“I think that it took Japan’s best two pitchers, in Sugano and Senga. To me, they’re probably the best two pitchers, and it took both of them to beat us.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report