Atsunori Inaba’s first game in charge of Samurai Japan had a little bit of everything. There were big plays, clutch hits and rallies in the bottom half of both the ninth and 10th innings.
The icing on the cake was Tatsuhiro Tamura’s sayonara double to win it.
Japan overcame a one-run deficit to tie the score in the ninth and got even in the 10th on a game-tying three-run home run by Seiji Uebayashi before Tamura’s game-winning double gave Inaba and Japan a thrilling 8-7 victory over South Korea in the opening game of the Asia Professional Baseball Championship (APBC) on Thursday night at Tokyo Dome.
“Inaba told me, ‘You finish it,'” Tamura said. “So I was determined to end it. I came up in the best situation and I appreciate Nishikawa for setting the table,” he added referring to the single Ryoma Nishikawa hit before his at-bat.
Things looked bleak for the Japanese after the Koreans scored three runs in the top of the 10th to take a 7-4 lead.
Japan, starting with runners on first and second under the extra-inning tiebreaker rules, was down to its final two outs after Hotaka Yamakawa, who hit a two-run homer earlier in the game, flew out to start the 10th.
Uebayashi, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks outfielder, breathed new life into the Japanese, and the fans who stayed long beyond the four-hour mark and past 11:30 p.m., with his dramatic shot to center.
“I wasn’t sure if it was gone, because I didn’t hit it perfectly,” Uebayashi said. “But since I hadn’t done anything, I’m pleased to have gotten a good result there.”
Nishikawa connected on a one-out single to right later in the frame, and Tamura won it with a hit that was ruled a double.
“It’s close every time Japan faces South Korea,” Inaba said. “But our players kept cheering so loud and I wanted to get a win for them.
“When we were down 4-1 (after the top of the fourth) and Yamakawa hit a homer. When someone who has good character like Yamakawa hits one, it completely changes the team’s mood. So Yamakawa’s homer was huge.”
The APBC is a three-nation competition between Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Each nation is fielding a team of players aged 24 and under, with the exception of the three overage players allowed on each roster (though the Koreans selected none).
The opening game also served as the managerial debut for Inaba, who helped Japan win the 2009 World Baseball Classic as a player. The former Yakult Swallows and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters star served as a coach under Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo during this year’s WBC, and was named as Kokubo’s successor on July 31.
“Obviously you feel the responsibility of wearing the Hinomaru,” Inaba said. “But these young players didn’t look like they felt any pressure, and I was a little jealous of them.”
Uebayashi led Japan with three RBIs, while Yamakawa, who went on a tear for the Seibu Lions late in the NPB season, finished 2-for-5 with two runs driven in out of the cleanup spot. Chunichi Dragons rookie Yota Kyoda was also credited with an RBI after drawing a game-tying bases-loaded walk in the ninth.
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Mizuki Hori, the youngest player on the team at 19, earned the victory in relief.
It was a bitter ending for the young Koreans, who were two outs away from victory on two occasions before losing the lead in each instance.
“I told our players it was a good game,” said Korea manager and former Chunichi Dragons closer Sun Dong-yol. “It’s disappointing we came up short but it was a good experience for Korea’s young players.”
They nearly won it twice.
Japan trailed 4-3 in the ninth, but a pair of one-out walks drawn by Nishikawa and Tamura and a single by Masayuki Kuwahara loaded the bases. Kyoda drew the bases-loaded walk to tie the score before Korean reliever Ham Deok-ju retired the next two batters to end the frame.
The 10th began with the tiebreaker rules in effect, meaning the Koreans started the frame with runners on first and second. Katsuki Matayoshi retired the first batter of the inning to bring Ryu Ji-Hyuk to the plate. The Doosan Bears infielder connected on 146-kph fastball and hit a double off the wall that drove in one run and put Korea ahead. Ha Ji-suk then hit a two-run double to right to make the score 7-4.
Hanwa Eagles infielder Ha led the way for the Koreans with three RBIs. Lee Jung-hoo, a 19-year-old outfielder for the Nexen Heroes and the runaway KBO Rookie of the Year in 2017, drove in a pair of runs for Korea.
Lee Min-ho was charged with the loss after allowing the final run.
The Koreans will try to bounce back when they face Taiwan on Friday. Japan will then face the Taiwanese on Saturday.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report