Japan didn’t need to beat Israel to qualify for the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic, but it probably felt good to head to the U.S. in style.
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo sparked a five-run sixth inning with a deep home run to center, and Japan punched its ticket for the semifinals in emphatic fashion with an 8-3 rout of Israel on Wednesday night at Tokyo Dome.
“The starting pitcher pitched very well and Tsutsugo opened up the game with his home run,” Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said.
The Japanese head to the championship round with a 6-0 record and hoping to claim their third WBC title. The result also sent the Netherlands through, while Israel was eliminated.
“We are very fortunate to have all of our stars here together,” Netherlands manager Hensley Meulens said in a statement. “We have proven that 2013 was not a fluke.”
For the Japanese, it means a return to Dodger Stadium, the venue where they won the 2009 title with a thrilling 10-inning victory over South Korea in the final. As winner of Pool E, Japan will face the Pool F runnerup on March 21.
“I don’t know who we’ll face in the semifinals, but whoever it is will be a tough opponent,” Kokubo said.
No matter what happens in Pool F, which consists of the defending champion Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the United States and Venezuela, a team full of major leaguers will be waiting for the Japanese in Los Angeles.
“I think any one of the four teams that end up in Los Angeles can win it,” Israel manager Jerry Weinstein said. “It’s baseball. I think with the offensive firepower that the Netherlands has, and the pitching depth and the kind of funkiness that the Japanese team has, I think they can be extremely competitive. They’re going to have to be.”
Israel needed a victory to keep its own hopes alive. Starter Josh Zeid gave his team a chance with four scoreless innings, but Israel’s hitters didn’t have an answer for Japanese pitcher Kodai Senga nor any of the team’s relievers.
Tsutsugo broke a scoreless tie with his home run off Dylan Axelrod to lead off the sixth. Japan broke the game open with RBI hits by Nobuhiro Matsuda, Seiji Kobayashi and Ryosuke Kikuchi, while Norichika Aoki was hit with a pitch with the bases loaded.
Just like that it was 5-0, and the Japanese (and the Dutch) were making plans for sunny California.
“Senga and (Yoshihisa) Hirano were pitching so well, and that helped us play with a good tempo,” Tsutsugo said. “I think that’s what led to the home run.”
Japan is the only team to reach the semifinals in all four editions of the WBC. The Japanese are 23-7, with titles in 2006 and 2009, all-time in the event. The team will be hoping to erase the memories of 2013’s semifinal loss to Puerto Rico with this trip to the final four.
Senga was impressive again on the mound for Japan. Making his first start of the WBC, he allowed one hit and struck out four over five scoreless innings.
“I tried to hold them to zero runs every inning,” Senga said. “It feels good to have been able to keep them from scoring.”
Senga has made three appearances, throwing nine scoreless innings while allowing four hits and striking out 11 with one walk and one hit batter. He figures to have a large role to play, either as a starter or reliever, going forward.
“I want to try to put up zeros no matter how I’m used,” Senga said.
Hirano threw 1 1/3 innings to earn the win in relief.
Tsutsugo finished 1-for-3 with an RBI. He’s been very effective in his role as Japan’s cleanup hitter, going 8-for-22 with three home runs and eight RBIs.
“No matter where I hit in the lineup, the most important thing is that the team wins,” Tsutsugo said. “I only want to be in the best condition for the semifinal.”
Hayato Sakamoto had a three-hit night and Tetsuto Yamada finished 2-for-4. Seiichi Uchikawa, who was on both the 2009 and 2013 teams, was 1-for-3 with two RBIs. Matsuda drove in two runs and finished 2-for-5.
“Every player did his job,” Yamada said. “We came through as a team rather than as individual players.”
Israel’s first-ever appearance in the WBC began with four straight victories but will end after consecutive losses to the Netherlands and Japan in the second round.
“Number one, we’re disappointed because we lost and we won’t be moving on” Weinstein said. “We lost to two really good teams.”
Team Israel was the early surprise of the tournament, with interest in the squad growing with each win.
“We surprised some people,” Weinstein said. “We didn’t surprise the people in that locker room or in that dugout. We knew that we had a competitive team.”
Axelrod was charged with three runs on two hits over one inning and took the loss.
Sam Fuld led off the game with a single, but Israel didn’t get another hit until a double by Nate Freiman in the seventh. Ryan Lavarnway finished with two RBIs and Ike Davis also drove in a run. All three runs came in the ninth inning.
Neither side managed to put anything on the board until Tsutsugo’s home run.
Japan’s next run in the sixth came on an RBI single by Matsuda, and another crossed thanks to some sloppy fielding by Israel on a hit by Kobayashi. Israel intentionally walked Yamada to load the bases, and Kikuchi singled in another run to make it 4-0. Aoki was hit on the shoulder with the bases loaded, which brought in another run.
Uchikawa drove in two with a double in the eighth and Matsuda made the score 8-0 with an RBI single.
Fuld drew a walk to begin the ninth and Ty Kelly followed with a single. Davis then connected on a hit to right to make the score 8-1, and Lavarnway tacked on two more with a one-out double to left.
Reliever Kazuhisa Makita finally stopped the bleeding with a pair of outs to end the game.
Pool E ended with Japan on top and the Netherlands in second place. Dutch slugger Wladimir Balentien was chosen as the MVP of the group.
“My teammates and I came to play in the Classic and our goal was to advance to the final,” Balentien said in a statement. “I am happy I could help the team advance and look forward to the championship round.”
Staff Writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report