2017 WBC: Eighth-inning heroics carry unbeaten Japan past Cuba

Another night, another thrilling win for Samurai Japan at the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Pinch hitter Seiichi Uchikawa brought in the tiebreaking run with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the eighth, Tetsuto Yamada provided more breathing room with a two-run home run later in the frame, and the Japanese emerged from a back-and-forth battle against Cuba with a 8-5 victory on Tuesday night at Tokyo Dome.

The Japanese took a big step toward qualifying for the semifinals in the U.S. with the win.

The team is in prime position to advance, but a loss to Israel on Wednesday could possibly bring the WBC tiebreaker rules, which consider runs allowed per inning of defense played, into effect. So manager Hiroki Kokubo is hoping to keep things simple by winning.

“If we win we can go to Los Angeles no matter what the run difference is,” Kokubo said. “We just want to win.”

Yamada hit two homers and drove in three runs in the victory. Kokubo said he felt Yamada might be due for a big night when he saw the way the Tokyo Yakult Swallows star swung the bat during practice.

“I haven’t been swinging the bat well for the past four or five games,” Yamada said. “I was put back into the leadoff spot tonight, so I was motivated to work for the team.”

Yamada led off the bottom of the first inning with a home run and provided an encore with his blast in the eighth.

“I thought I swung the bat really well during batting practice,” Yamada said. “That gave me confidence.”

Two nights after an 11-inning victory over the Netherlands that could’ve gone either way, Japan found itself in another tight contest. Neither side seemed to be able to keep the other off the scoreboard, with the either the lead changing or the game becoming tied in each of the first seven innings.

It wasn’t until the eighth, when Japan took advantage of Cuba’s only error to put Nobuhiro Matsuda aboard with one out, that the Japanese gained a bit of separation.

Shogo Akiyama singled to move Matsuda to third and Uchikawa stepped to the plate to hit for Seiji Kobayashi. Uchikawa sent a ball into right field that looked like it might land in foul territory. Cuba’s Victor Victor Mesa caught it, which allowed Matsuda to race home and score on a sacrifice fly.

“I was just praying for him to catch it,” Uchikawa said. “In that situation, it makes a big difference whether we score a run or not. It might’ve been a better story if I could’ve hit an RBI single, but no matter how it happened, we scored. That’s the important thing.”

Japan has won all five of its games during the WBC.

Pitcher Kazuhisa Makita retired the Cubans in order in the top of the ninth to give Japan the victory. Makita earned the save, with reliever Ryo Akiyoshi credited with the victory.

Japan’s Yoshitomo Tsutsugo finished 3-for-3 with game-tying RBI singles in the third and fifth innings.

“I was only focused on bringing the run in,” Tsutsugo said after his hit up the middle in the third.

Norichika Aoki and Kobayashi also each drove in a run for the Japanese.

The Japanese are trying to reach the WBC semifinals for the fourth consecutive time. Japan won the tournament in 2006 and 2009, but lost in the final four in 2013.

“I have regret from the last time (in 2013),” Uchikawa said. “But this is a personal thing. I’m part of this team now, and our chemistry is very good. I’m hoping we can go to the U.S. with a perfect record.”

Cuba’s Yurisbel Gracial was 2-for-4 with a two-run home run, while Mesa drove in a pair of runs with a tiebreaking single in the fourth. Yosvany Alarcon also drove in a run.

Reliever Miguel Lahera was charged with the loss.

It was a very good game,” Cuba manager Carlos Marti said. “Both teams swung the bat very well. The one error made a big difference.”

Japan will send Kodai Senga to the mound on Wednesday against Israel. Team Israel will counter with Josh Zeid.