|Photo credit: The Associated Press|
From the second inning, we knew that the Tokyo Dome would be a theater for a masterpiece that all spectators will never forget. Just when we all thought that Samurai Japan would blowout the Oranje after they exploded to a 5-1 lead thanks to a 3-run home run from Sho Nakata in the top of the 3rd, the Dutch exploded for a four run inning of their own capped off by a 2-run home run by Coco Balentien that clanged off the left field foul pole. Balentien included an elaborate celebration and the Dutch poured out of the dugout to celebrate with him. These celebrations are a welcomed sight to the new generation of baseball fans and thankfully, so far there hasn't been any retaliation regarding the celebrations that have been a regular occurence in this year's WBC.
The outburst from the Dutch indicated to everyone that the sleepy offense the Dutch put together in round one had finally awakened and pitchers across the tournament should be put on high alert. With the offensive outburst from both squads, Rick van den Hurk and Ayumu Ishikawa were pulled each after 3 innings. Both managers knew the importance of this game so emergency action was needed.
Then there was the show that Kodai Senga put on in his two innings of relief. The Netherlands' first six batters had been no match for the pitch-to-contact style of Ayumu Ishikawa and Japan's manager, Hiroki Kokubo could get through the 4th with Yoshihisa Hirano pitching to the bottom of the Dutch order. In the 5th, the top of the Dutch order was impending with Andrelton Simmons and Kokubo responded by bringing in Kodai Senga who was unhittable in his only relief appearance against Australia in round one. Senga, nursing a 6-5 lead, surrendered back to back hits by Simmons and Jurickson Profar with the dangerous Xander Bogaerts due up and Coco Balentien on deck. Senga showcased his pitching repertoire by ringing up Bogaerts and then making Balentien whiff at a nasty slider thrown to the outside for out No. 2. Senga would complete the Houdini by getting Didi Gregorious to groundout. Senga would then get another scoreless inning of relief in the 6th.
Ishikawa's struggles coupled with Senga's dominance begs one looming question: Should Japan start Kodai Senga in either the semifinal or the final? One of the concerns that Christian and I had for Samurai Japan was whether or not they had enough elite pitching talent without Shohei Otani to compete with the stacked lineups of teams like the Dominican Republic. The Netherlands was probably the best test to see if Japan's pitching could survive a solid lineup and what happened with Ishikawa is probably a concerning sign. Sure, Ishikawa is probably not Japan's best pitcher but there are probably only a handful of guys on Samurai Japan's roster that consistently miss bats against the elite teams in this tournament. Senga is one of those guys and though I like the idea of using him as a relief ace, he might be better served as a starter in the Championship Round in LA.
From then on, Japanese pitchers allowed baserunners in the 7th and 8th innings an thanks to plays like this from Ryosuke Kikuchi, they staved off the threats. With the lack of clean innings, the nature of the game was always full of tension and it all felt like the important game it was supposed to be.
Then came the bottom of the 9th, and the answer about who was going to close for Samurai Japan in such a close game was answered with Takahiro Norimoto stepping up to the rubber. Norimoto seemed like a good choice to close out the Dutch, especially given that he has electric stuff and is among NPB's best strikeout guys.
Norimoto would get Jurickson Profar to strikeout to start the bottom of the 9th but then he would lose a full count battle to Xander Bogaerts by surrendering a walk. Coco Balentien would then single and Bogaerts would race over third with only one out. Then Didi Gregorious lined out to Norichika Aoki in left for the second out. Just when you thought Norimoto was going to get out of it, Jonathan Schoop grounded one off the glove of Ryosuke Kikuchi and into centerfield to tie the game. It was time for extra innings and there would be more drama in the top of the 10th.
With the Dutch's lack of pitching depth becoming apparent, Japan would get have runners on second and third with one out thanks to a single from Seiji Kobayashi and a double from the pinch-hitting Seiichi Uchikawa. Dutch manager Hensley Meulens would bring in Tom Stuifbergen who had been pitching in the Dutch League for the past 3 years. Stuifbergen would intentionally walk Kikuchi to load the bases with Norichika Aoki due up. Aoki would ground into a 4-6-3 inning-ending double play and Curt Smith, the Dutch first baseman, might've pulled his foot off the bag, but nonetheless the drama of the game continued.
Kokubo brought in Kazuhisa Makita to pitch the 10th and he had an easy 1-2-3 inning which was the first one from the Dutch since the 4th inning. With the end of the 10th inning, the international tiebreak rules made their debut at the World Baseball Classic. I didn't know what I would think of the wacky scenario, but as it all played out, it just seemed like a necessary catalyst to secure an outcome of the game. I wouldn't like it if it decided the championship game, but I'm fine with it in the early rounds. With the Japanese starting the top of the 11th, Kokubo made Seiya Suzuki bunt over the two baserunners in the traditional Japanese tactical sense. I'm not sure if I would've done it, considering Japan was the away team but it seemed to have done its job. Sho Nakata would continue his big night by singling home both runners to make it 8-6. Hayato Sakamoto would follow it up with another single and just when we all thought Japan would tee off with the tiebreak rules, Tetsuto Yamada grounded into an inning-ending double play.
I felt that Japan might regret not scoring more than just two, especially with the Dutch middle of the order up once again but Makita's submarine style baffled Dutch hitters and they were unable to put any runs across. Japan was victorious.
Words cannot do this game the justice that it deserves. There were so many great moments from two of the best teams in the entire tournament and everyone needs to see the game in full color to really grasp how spectacular it was.
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