The World Baseball Classic is not perfect, but sometimes the competition hits all the right notes and delivers the thrilling moments that make it feel almost like October in March.
A game of ebbs and flows, big hits, defensive gems and clutch pitching ended with Japan on top after Sho Nakata’s tiebreaking two-run single in the top of the 11th inning helped give the Japanese an 8-6 win over the Netherlands in a game that began Sunday night and didn’t end until nearly Monday morning at Tokyo Dome in the second round of the WBC.
Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo could barely find the words to describe it.
“My brain isn’t really working right now,” he said.
Because of the WBC tiebreaker rules that go into effect after the 10th, Japan began the 11th with runners on first and second. Seiya Suzuki opened the frame by advancing the runners with a sacrifice bunt.
Nakata then sent the second pitch he saw from Tom Stuifbergen into left field, and Ryosuke Kikuchi and Norichika Aoki raced home to put Japan ahead.
“Seiya told me before his at-bat that he was going to give me a chance,” Nakata said. “So I tried to do my best for the team and for Seiya.”
Netherlands manager Hensley Meulens was satisfied with the way tiebreaker system was applied, despite being on the losing end of it.
“For us, we’ve used it before in international games,” he said. “It’s the not the first time we’ve used it. It’s the rule. We’ve got to play by it. It’s a fair chance because you get to use it to when it’s your turn to hit.”
Japan reliever Kazuhisa Makita, who worked a scoreless 10th, returned to the mound in the 11th. The Seibu Lions reliever shut down the Dutch to give himself and his team a hard-fought win.
“When I went to mound, I was a little worried about giving up a hit,” Makita said. “My pitches had a little more speed than I was expecting, so I gained a little confidence.”
Nakata had a three-run home run earlier in the game and finished 3-for-6 with five RBIs. The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters slugger has homered in three consecutive games. He’s tied with Cuba’s Alfredo Despaigne, who will suit up for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks this season, for the WBC lead with three homers.
As the Japanese celebrated, the Dutch were left to rue what might have been.
“We had plenty of chances,” Meulens said. “In the bottom of the fifth, bottom of the eighth and again in the 11th. But we couldn’t get a big hit. We struggled to get a big hit.”
Dutch reliever Stuifbergen was charged with the loss.
Japan finished with 15 hits to 12 for the Netherlands, with Hayato Sakamoto also having a three-hit night. Shogo Akiyama made his first start of the tournament and drove in a pair of runs, and Seiji Kobayashi recorded an RBI.
Xander Bogaerts, a member of the vaunted Netherlands infield made a diving play at third that may have saved a run early in the game, but it was Japan’s defensive maestro, Ryosuke Kikuchi who made the finest play of the night.
With a man on first and one out in the seventh, Bogaerts laced a grounder up the middle. Kikuchi, the second baseman made a diving play to his right to keep the ball in the infield, and then used his glove to flip to ball to Sakamoto for the force out at second. Ryo Akiyoshi then struck out Wladimir Balentein to end the inning with Japan still ahead by a run.
Balentien, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger, had a pair of hits for the Dutch, including a two-run home run in the third inning. Teammate Jonathan Schoop finished 3-for-5, with a solo homer in the second and a game-tying two-out RBI single in the ninth against Takahiro Norimoto.
The Netherlands almost erased Japan’s lead an inning earlier, when the team loaded the bases with one out in the eighth. Instead, Japan reliever Hirotoshi Masui struck out Randolph Oduber and retired Andrelton Simmons to end that threat.
After Suzuki’s bunt in the 11th, Meulens said he didn’t consider pitching around the dangerous Nakata, who ended up striking the decisive blow.
“Earlier in the game, we got him out,” Meulens said. “The guy (Sakamoto) who was hitting behind him was super hot today, he was on base almost every time, swinging the bat really good. So we took our chances.”