Samurai Japan seemed to have found its stroke in a recent exhibition match against Chinese Taipei. With just two more practice games before the World Baseball Classic starts (on Tuesday, March 7), Hanshin was supposed to help them feel good about their lineup and pitchers so they could confidently start the tournament against Cuba. But something happened. Hanshin came out to impress its own manager.
Perhaps wanting to give Samurai a taste of non-Japanese pitching, the Tigers trotted out Randy Messenger. In three innings of quick work, his lone blemish was a sharp single through the left side of the infield by Tetsuto Yamada (Yakult) in the top of the second. He didn’t remain on the base paths long, though, as his attempt to steal second was thwarted by a rejuvenated Ryutaro Umeno.
On the hitting side of things, Fumiya Hojoh led off the bottom of the first with a single off Shota Takeda (SoftBank). It was quickly followed by a Shun Takayama double deep to right center, just of the reach of Seiya Suzuki (Hiroshima). With runners on second and third and no outs, Takashi Toritani grounded out to pitcher, and then birthday boy (and newly converted first baseman) Fumihito Haraguchi grounded out to shortstop, deeply enough to score a run.
The Tigers added more runs the very next inning, as Hiroki Uemoto walked to lead things off and then Yusuke Ohyama hit a double down the left field line, giving the team another great scoring chance. Yutaro Itayama got the job done on a pitch that seemed to miss its spot badly. His single to right brought home two more runs, pushing the lead to 3.
The first pitcher in relief for Hanshin was Yuta Iwasada, and after giving up a first-pitch single to Norichika Aoki (Houston Astros) – the lone MLB player on the Samurai Japan roster – he settled in nicely. An infield single (Toritani made a fabulous play and glove-tossed it to second, but the ump called Aoki safe) gave Japan its first runner in scoring position, but second was all he got. Iwasada would go on to shut down the bats through three innings of work, and heading into the final three frames, Hanshin was still up three. (The bats really failed to get anything going after those first two innings.)
Roman Mendez mowed down the first two batters he saw in the seventh, but then gave up a towering home run down past the left field pole to Sho Nakata (Nippon Ham) and then a double to Yamada. Marcos Mateo struggled early in the eighth, putting two men on base (infield single on a Tori bobble and bad throw, plunk). Aoki advanced the runners into scoring position with a grounder, and Ryosuke Kikuchi (Hiroshima) dribbled a grounder west of the mound to bring a runner across home.
Just when the game was looking close, though, Haraguchi got a one-out single in the bottom of the eighth, and rookie Kento Itohara blasted a double to the right-center gap, scoring pinch runner Fumiya Araki. The two-run cushion was more than enough for the closer of the night, Rafael Dolis, who induced three straight grounders to end the game quickly. Click here for highlights.