Hitting long balls out of the park is not the fort of Team Japan at the World Baseball Challenge.
The only team in the tournament yet to accomplish a round-tripper, JX-Eneos of Japan proved to the United States in an 8-5 victory Friday afternoon that a lack of power at the plate is no detriment to success on the scoreboard.
Japan’s small-ball tactics, speed on the basepaths, a defence that made only two errors, and stingy pitching that held off the bulk of the Americans’ heavy hitters led to the team’s second win in three games at the tournament.
“That’s our game, just hitting singles and doubles and finding ways to score,” said JX-Eneos shortstop Datsuke Ishii, who hit 2-for-4 with a walk as his team improved to 2-1.
“The defence is our strong point and we’re more focused on defence than offence. Our pitchers did a really good job. We have an advantage because we are a club team which has played together for a number of years.”
Through three games, Japan has allowed nine runs. They came into
Friday’s game having shut out Canada 9-0 the previous night after opening with a 4-2 loss to Cuba.
A brief thundershower cast doubts Friday’s game would go ahead as scheduled but they started on time in the rain and within a few minutes the skies cleared.
Japan wasted no time on the wet field applying the heat of USA starter Eric Huson, who gave up a single with the bases loaded in the first inning, scoring Matsaka Iryo. Ren Yamasaki’s infield hit drove in another run but the damage could have been a lot worse.
Team USA got back on even terms with two runs in the second, touched off by a home run from Bobby LeCount. Leadoff hitter Roeman Fields hit a sacrifice fly to plate Mychal Harrington, who got hit by a pitch from starter Shota Eguchi.
Huson continued to struggle with his control, plunking the first two batters he faced in the third and walking Yamasaki to load the bases again. Two more runs scored and manager Rick Skinner replaced Huson with Jeff Cooper, whose first pitch to Ishii was driven into right field to score Yamasaki.
After retiring the side in order in the fourth, Cooper liked what he saw in the bottom half of the inning as his team scored twice to make it a one-run game.
But in the fifth, defensive miscues hurt the Americans. First baseman LeCount had trouble getting the ball out of his glove on a grounder and his high toss to Cooper left Yamasaki safe at first. Shun Ishikawa sliced one out to right field and Kenaro Mazakawa brought home Yamasaki on a base hit. Kazuaki Hidaka's short chopper to third base rolled under the glove of Nate Mullins and Ishikawa scored to make it 7-4. Japan added one more in the seventh.
“We made a couple mental mistakes and that cost us a bit,” said Harrington, a 22-year-old native of Vancouver, Wash., who had two hits and a walk in three at-bats.
“We only lost by three and we stayed in there, hopefully we can get them next time.”
Team USA sent the tying run to the plate in the ninth, with runners at first and third, but closer Isao Numao did his job, striking out Nate Mullins to end the game.
“We didn’t help ourselves out with a couple costly errors and a bunch of free passes pitching-wise,” said Skinner. “Every team is good in this tournament and when you give them extra outs it comes back to bite you.”
The U.S. faces Cuba (2-0) tonight at 7.