First time in Classic history special extra-inning rules are utilized
By Danny Knobler
Special to MLB.com |
TOKYO -- The winning rally began with a sacrifice bunt. Really, it did.
Playing for the first time under World Baseball Classic rules designed to prevent long extra-inning games, Japan scored two times in the 11th inning on Sunday to defeat the Netherlands, 8-6, in both teams' second-round opener. After beginning the inning with runners at first and second base under tournament rules, Japan had Seiya Suzuki bunt them over to second and third. Sho Nakata followed by delivering a single to bring both of them home.
Japan remained undefeated in WBC 2017, after the wildest of games in which the Japanese took the lead four times and gave it back three. Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop sent the game into extra innings with a two-out RBI single in the ninth, one of just three Netherlands hits in 16 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
"My brain isn't working right now," Japan's manager Hiroki Kokubu joked a few minutes after the game ended.
His brain may be hurting, but his team is in prime position to advance to the semifinals for a fourth straight World Baseball Classic. Japan is the only country to make the semifinal round in the first three tournaments.
The Dutch were a surprise semifinalist four years ago -- joining Japan in coming out of the Tokyo pool, despite losing to the hosts twice. It wouldn't be nearly as big a surprise if the Netherlands advances this year, although Sunday's loss made it likely the Dutch will need to beat both Israel and Cuba in their next two games.
"We're still in it," said Netherlands manager Hensley Meulens.
The Netherlands didn't come close to beating Japan four years ago, and in fact gave up six home runs in one 16-4 loss. Sunday's game was much closer, but it left the Dutch frustrated.
"We had plenty of chances," Meulens said. "We couldn't get a big hit. Our relievers gave us a chance. We just didn't get the timely hit to put them away."
The Dutch had runners on base in inning after inning, because they kept getting hits. They had two runners on in the 11th, because that's the rule.
But just like in so many of those other innings, the Dutch couldn't bring the baserunners home. This time, it cost them.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED A bunt and a hit: The 11th inning set up perfectly for the Japanese, because Kokubu had removed cleanup hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh two innings earlier for a defensive replacement. Because he did, he had Suzuki up to begin the 11th in a bunting situation. That put runners at second and third for Nakata, who had a double and a three-run homer earlier in the game. Meulens opted against intentionally walking Nakata because the hitter behind him, Hayato Sakamoto, also swung the bat well on Sunday. Meulens also opted against bunting to start his half of the 11th, because his leadoff hitter in the inning was Jurickson Profar.
"Profar has been our hottest hitter," Meulens explained. "I wasn't going to bunt my best hitter." More >
Dutch catch a break: Japan nearly took the lead in the 10th inning, but with the bases loaded and one out, the Netherlands turned a double play. Or did they? Japanese players and coaches contended first baseman Curt Smith's foot was off the bag as he reached for the throw from shortstop Andrelton Simmons. First-base umpire Larry Vanover said Smith's foot was on the base, but television replays suggested it wasn't. There are no replay reviews, except for home runs, during the first two rounds of the World Baseball Classic.
Coco power: The only player in the top six of the Netherlands' lineup who isn't a current Major Leaguer is Balentien, the cleanup hitter known as Coco. Balentien, who played for the Mariners and Reds from 2007-09, has played for Japan's Tokyo Yakult Swallows the last six years, hitting 60 home runs in 130 games in 2013. So his game-tying two-run shot in the third inning was no surprise to the local fans.
Sho time: Nakata was Japan's cleanup hitter at the start of a fall-exhibition series, but struggled and was pushed to the fifth spot behind Tsutsugoh. Nakata said Japan's hitting coach Atsunori Inaba told him to swing as hard as he can. Now, he has three home runs in four tournament games -- including a three-run shot in the third inning on Sunday.
"To be honest, we knew they were going to score some runs. We thought we had to score at least 5-6 runs to win, because their offense is so powerful." -- Kokubu, on facing the Netherlands
WHAT'S NEXT Japan: The hosts have a day off before they play Cuba on Tuesday at 6 a.m. ET on MLB Network and MLB.TV.
Netherlands: The Dutch, who lost to Israel in a first-round game that only determined seeding, will face the tournament's surprise team again on Monday at 6 a.m. ET on MLB Network and MLB.TV. Right-hander Jair Jurrjens will start for the Netherlands, with Cardinals Minor League right-hander Corey Baker starting for Israel.
The World Baseball Classic runs through March 22. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament is being distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games at Tokyo Dome, Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Mexico and Petco Park, as well as the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.
Danny Knobler is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.