Baseball

Samurai Japan southpaw Shota Imanaga baffles Taiwan batters in dazzling 12-strikeout performance

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The way Shota Imanaga was pitching with a one-run lead took almost all the mystery out of Samurai Japan’s game against Taiwan. Well, all of the mystery except the question of whether the next batter would strike out swinging or looking.

Fresh off a Japan Series in which he turned in two great performances for the Yokohama BayStars, the lefty starter was on top of his game again under the bright lights. This time, it was for Samurai Japan and it was the Taiwanese national team he was mowing down.

Imanaga went on a six-inning strikeout spree and got plenty of run support as Japan bulldozed Taiwan 8-1 on the third day of the Asia Professional Baseball Championship on Saturday at Tokyo Dome.

“Had we lost tonight we might not have advanced to the final so it was a must-win for us,” Japan manager Atsunori Inaba said. “Now we are able to go to tomorrow’s game, so I feel a little relieved.”

Japan defeated Korea in its first game on Thursday and will face the Koreans, who beat Taiwan on Friday, in a final-round rematch on Sunday night. Taiwan heads home with two losses.

“I’m going to do my best to think of our starting lineup tonight,” Inaba said. “We’re not going to hesitate to use as many pitchers as necessary.”

The first pitcher he’s going to use is Yomiuri Giants left-hander Kazuto Taguchi. The Korean starter is Park Se-woong.

Although the biggest surprise of the night came when Imanaga, fresh off throwing 106 pitches, said he’d be ready for the final if needed. Inaba quickly turned toward his pitcher with a shocked look on his face before breaking into a grin.

“That sounds very promising, but he’s probably not going to pitch for us,” Inaba said.

Imanaga was on fire from the start on Saturday and ended up with 12 strikeouts in six scoreless innings.

“I tried to have good communication with (catcher Tatsuhiro) Tamura,” Imanaga said. “Whatever sign he gave me, I was able to pitch with confidence.”

He could hardly ask for more in his first start with the national team.

“I was very nervous before the game,” Imanaga said. “Even on the mound I didn’t feel the way I normally feel. But I feel relieved I was able to do my job.”

The BayStars lefty allowed three hits and hit one batter. He sent eight batters down swinging and punched out four looking. He’d already struck out eight of Taiwan’s nine starters after 3 1/3 innings.

“The Japanese pitcher held us down completely,” Taiwan manager Hong I-chung said. “We couldn’t do anything at all against him.”

Imanaga was in similar form during this fall’s Japan Series against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, finishing with 21 strikeouts over 13-plus innings in two starts. He said the game. The major difference was his team came out on top this time. He also said he learned a lot from his outing. “The biggest thing I learned is I need to pitch as hard as I can,” Imanaga said. “That’s my No. 1 priority. Even just looking at today’s game, I had some things I have to reflect on.

When I faced Wang Po-jung, Tamura actually put his mitt low, but I tried to do something different,” Imanaga said, referring to the single he allowed in the sixth. “I was facing a hitter who could change the momentum with one swing, so I shouldn’t have done that. That’s one of the things I’ve learned from today’s game.”

While Imanaga dominated from the mound, his teammates got to work at the plate.

Shuta Tonosaki drove in the first run with a homer in the second inning and connected on an RBI double to pad a big lead in the ninth. Yoda Kyoda hit a two-run single in the fifth and then an RBI single in the eighth. Go Matsumoto drove in two runs with a double in the seventh and Seiji Uebayashi drew a bases-loaded walk in the same inning.

Imanaga’s only real jam came in the fourth. Daikan Yoh began the inning with an infield single for Taiwan and a throwing error by first baseman Hotaka Yamakawa put runners on the corners with no outs. Imanaga got out of the jam unscathed by striking out the next three batters.

“Yamakawa played aggressively and made an error,” Imanaga said. “So I tried to not think of it as a jam, but rather a chance to gain the trust of my teammates. I was very pleased after I was able to strike out the last batter.”

Taiwan starter Lin Cheng-Hsien allowed three runs on five hits in 4 2/3 innings on the mound. He struck out two and walked one.

“Facing a strong team like this, I gave it everything I had,” Lin said. “I made mistakes with my pitches in the second and fifth innings.”

First baseman Chu Yu-Hsien gave the Taiwanese, who lost 1-0 in their previous game, their first run of the tournament with a solo home run to begin the ninth. Taiwan got its second run when Chen Chieh-hsien drew a bases loaded walk.

“Even though we lost both games, we’ve learned from this,” Hong said. “When you’re winning, you tend to forget what you’ve learned, but when you lose, it sticks and gives you what you need to move forward.

So it was a good experience for our players, and they know where they need to improve.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report