The first game of any tournament is always tough, especially on one of the biggest stages in sports, and that was certainly the case for Samurai Japan in their first game of the Tokyo Olympics.
The hosts struggled to get their bats going against Dominican Republic’s starting pitcher Cristopher Mercedes on Wednesday at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium as the Olympic baseball tournament kicked off. But the offense clicked at just the right time, allowing manager Atsunori Inaba’s squad to eke out a 4-3 victory on a walk-off hit by Hayato Sakamoto in the bottom of the ninth inning.
On a team with veteran ace Masahiro Tanaka, it was Yoshinobu Yamamoto who got the call in the opener and the 22-year-old was superb, giving up no runs and striking out nine across six innings to give his team a chance to win.
“While we expected this first game to be a difficult one, Yoshinobu did a great job holding them to no runs,” Inaba said after the game. “We allowed them to get on the scoreboard first and it put us in a tough situation, but our players tried to set the table for others and it resulted in the sayonara win.”
It was the first baseball contest played at the Olympics since the 2008 Beijing Games. The sport will be scrapped from the Olympic program for the 2024 Paris Games.
With the Dominicans up 3-1 in the bottom of the ninth, Japanese slugger Munetaka Murakami came up with an RBI single, allowing Japan to tie things up on a thrilling Takuya Kai squeeze bunt.
After Tetsuto Yamada’s single set up a bases-loaded situation, Sakamoto swung hard on the first pitch by reliever Jhan Marinez for the one-out, game-winning hit over centerfielder Emilio Bonifacio to end the afternoon.
Japan had a tough time figuring out Mercedes, who plays for the Yomiuri Giants in Nippon Professional Baseball and who blanked the home favorites over six stellar innings.
The Dominican Republic broke the 0-0 tie when catcher Charlie Valerio drove in two runs with a two-out double to left off reliever Koyo Aoyagi in the top of the seventh.
Japan finally put a run on the scoreboard in the bottom of the seventh and nearly tied the game at 2, but Yamada was thrown out at home by leftfielder Johan Mieses.
The Dominicans added a go-ahead run in the top of the inning when Gustavo Nunez doubled off Ryoji Kuribayashi.
But Japan’s offense finally came through in the final frame, coming up with three runs to come away with the win.
“To be honest, I feel relieved to have won this first game,” Sakamoto said. “We were surrounded by a heavy atmosphere earlier but our players kept cheering and we ended up winning that way in the end, so we feel pleased to have this first win.”
Yamamoto, who stars with the NPB’s Orix Buffaloes and served as a reliever during Japan’s title-winning Premier 12 tourney, said that he was a little nervous early but feels happy he did his job.
“In part because it was the first game, I had a few jitters and I wasn’t settled well enough early on,” he said. “But I tried to prevent our opponents from scoring first and pitched with that in mind and felt relieved that I could contribute to the win.”
Mercedes allowed only three hits and fanned seven on 104 pitches.
“It was a privilege to be able to serve as the starting pitcher against Japan,” Mercedes said. “I just felt really good, really excited.”
For Japan, Yamamoto’s Orix teammate Masataka Yoshida and SoftBank Hawks superstar Yuki Yanagita each went 2-for-4.
Samurai Japan is seeking a first Olympic gold medal — the squad did prevail at the 1984 Los Angeles Games when baseball was a demonstration sport — and will take on Mexico at Yokohama Stadium at noon on Saturday.
The Dominicans, who are making their first Olympic appearance in the sport since the 1992 Barcelona Games, will face Mexico at 12 p.m. on Friday.
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