Baseball

Japan drives past Mexico as Hayato Sakamoto breaks out of slump

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Japan manager Atsunori Inaba professed his belief in shortstop Hayato Sakamoto, even as the star infielder struggled at the plate during the Premier12.

With Japan looking to bounce back from its first loss of the tournament and facing undefeated Mexico, Sakamoto was back in a familiar spot in the lineup and finally looking a little like his old self again.

Sakamoto broke out of a slump with a three-hit night, Shota Imanaga struck out eight and Samurai Japan dealt Mexico its first loss of the Premier12 with a 3-1 win in the Super Round on Wednesday night at Tokyo Dome.

“First of all, Imanaga faced a very strong Mexico lineup and held them to one hit and he pitched very well,” Inaba said. “Then our relievers came in after Imanaga and didn’t allow any hits. So each of our pitchers had a really excellent performance.

“As for our offense, we scored two runs in the first inning and had another run in the second. It was very important for us to have a lead and score early in the game. This was game that we won in a very Japanese baseball style.”

After falling against the United States on Tuesday night, Japan put pressure on the Mexican pitchers early while Imanaga was in full control on the mound.

Sakamoto was in the middle of it all, going 3-for-5 with an RBI and a stolen base.

Sakamoto had a excellent NPB campaign for the Yomiuri Giants and is a favorite to be named Central League MVP later this month. He struggled during the Japan Series, however, and that slump continued into the Premier12, with the star shortstop just 3-for-15 prior to Wednesday. He struck out three times on Tuesday against the Americans.

Inaba moved him up in the order from No. 7 on Tuesday to No. 2, his usual spot with Yomiuri, for the Mexico contest.

For one night, at least, it paid off.

“Coming into this game, I’d been watching him during the practices in Okinawa,” Inaba said. “I’d seen him work on his batting and all the training he was doing to make adjustments for this international event.

“I’ve seen all of the effort he’s put in. I really believed he would come up with results in some key moments. I think the baseball gods are watching and are rewarding Sakamoto for all the work he’s been putting into this.”

Sakamoto registered Japan’s first hit with a single in his first at-bat and hit an RBI single his next time up.

“Tetsuto (Yamada) set the table for me,” Sakamoto said of his run-scoring hit in the second, “so I was able to hit with a compact swing.”

After striking out his third time up, Sakamoto collected his third single of the night in the sixth.

Teammate Seiya Suzuki finished 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI, continuing his scorching run through the tournament. Suzuki is 10-for-21 with three home runs and 11 RBIs in six games.

Kensuke Kondo also drove in a run for Japan, which finished with nine hits.

Imanaga was untroubled for most of the night on the mound, allowing just one hit, a home run by Jonathon Jones, over six innings. He struck out eight, all swinging, and made good use of his changeup.

“My condition wasn’t that great in the bullpen, but (catcher Tsubasa) Aizawa-san got the best out of me,” Imanaga said. “I was able to use all of my pitches well. I’m glad I was able to follow Aizawa-san’s lead.”

He ended his outing with a flourish, striking all three batters in the sixth.

“He was very good and pitched very well. Our batters tried hard to hit him,” Mexico manager Juan Castro said. “His performance was very good.”

Hiroshi Kaino entered the game behind Imanaga and hit 156 kph (97 mph) with a fastball during his inning on the mound. Yoshinobu Yamamoto also pitched a scoreless inning and closer Yasuaki Yamasaki threw a perfect ninth.

Japan’s pitchers held Mexico to one hit and struck out 15.

Jones, like Suzuki, has also had a strong showing during the Premier12 and his home run off Imanaga was his second of the tournament. He didn’t have great night overall, however, as he struck out in his other three at-bats.

“Honestly, I was just looking for a good pitch to hit,” Jones said of the homer. “He was throwing all his pitches for strikes, so I was looking to be aggressive, look for a fastball, and luckily I got it and I hit it well.

“He (Imanaga) was great tonight.”

Mexico starter Horacio Ramirez was charged with three runs and allowed four hits in 1⅓ innings on the mound in the loss.

“He’s an excellent pitcher, Castro said. “He made some mistakes and the Japanese hitters were successful in exploiting those mistakes.”

Sakamoto hit a one-out single in the first and stole second against Ramirez. Suzuki drove him in with an RBI single to give the Japanese a 1-0 advantage.

A single by Shuta Tonosaki set up Japan with runners on first and second later in the inning and Kondo singled to center to make the score 2-0.

Sakamoto picked up his second hit of the night in the second on a single that allowed Aizawa to score from second.

Jones got Mexico on the board in the sixth, but that’s all the team could muster against the Japanese staff.

The Japanese, 3-1 in the Super Round, will get a couple of days off before facing South Korea on Saturday.

Mexico, also 3-1, would’ve clinched a spot in the 2020 Olympics with a win. The Mexicans, however, are still in a great position in that race. Their next game is against South Korea on Friday.

“One loss can’t change the mentality and there can’t be any panic,” Jones said. “So from the mindset, we’re going to be ready for Korea.”