Japan, the two-time reigning champion of the World Baseball Classic, pulled off some dramatics to kick of Friday's round-robin action. Koji Yamamoto's club overcame multiple late deficits to force extras, then emerged with a 4-3 victory in 10 innings over Pool B-winner Chinese Taipei.
In the double-elimination format, losing the first of three potential contests suddenly makes the WBC a win-or-go-home scenario. This display of resiliency gives the Japanese team a huge shot in the arm moving forward in its bid for a third title in this tournament.
Unlike so many other rosters stacked with Major League Baseball talent, Japan has showcased a sense of pride and determination as the event's only champion.
The friendly confines of the Tokyo Dome definitely helped Japan's cause in rallying back to a stunning triumph.
Further, there were plenty of people who tuned in on television to witness the squad's inspiring perseverance. Baltimore Orioles reporter Steve Melewski of MASNsports.com documented just how enthusiastic domestic support was for the Japanese.
Steve Melewski @masnSteve
From MLB: 1/3 of all TVs in Japan were on the WBC for 1st round. More than all Olympic competition & all non World Cup sports in past year.3/8/2013, 6:22:54 PM
Pool 1 just got a lot more interesting too, as Cuba was upset 6-2 by the Netherlands earlier in the day.
Avoiding an elimination matchup with Cuba was critical, as that squad was playing extremely well prior to Friday's disappointment. The Cubans lead the WBC with six home runs and notched a perfect 3-0 record in pool play, beating Japan in the last matchup 6-3.
Although they lack a lot of players who can change the game with one swing, there are plenty of heady Japanese players. Against Chinese Taipei, it was obvious that they could dig deep to find a way to win.
Former New York Yankees standout hurler Chien-Ming Wang tossed six shutout innings for Chinese Taipei, baffling opposing hitters with his sinker and control.
Small ball was the prevailing theme on Friday, as it has been for the entire tournament for the Japanese, who have failed to hit a single home run in four games.
However, once reliever Hung-Wen Chen took the hill in the eighth inning, everything changed. Three straight hits culminated in an RBI single by star catcher Shinnosuke Abe to cut the lead to 2-1. The equalizer, courtesy of a Hayato Sakamoto infield single that plated Yuichi Honda, followed shortly thereafter.
After Masahiro Tanaka surprisingly lost the lead in the bottom half of the inning, Hirokazu Ibata dropped an RBI single to center field, which scored Takashi Toritani.
Fittingly, outfielder Sho Nakata—who went hitless in four at-bats—swatted a sacrifice fly for the game-winning run.
Grinding out a win in this fashion gives the Japanese a huge lift moving forward in Round 2. All they need to do is beat the Netherlands in the next contest to automatically qualify for the semifinals.
Thus, the title defense is very much still alive for Japan, and this game showed just how fine the line is between elimination and prime position. But as the history of the WBC has maintained, Japan was up to the task yet again.