By John E. Gibson / Japan News SportswriterSome heavy hitting has made Samurai Japan armed and dangerous this year in the World Baseball Classic.
Japan has always brought strong pitching to the field, but when Yoshitomo Tsutsugo cracked a solo shot in the sixth inning to break a scoreless tie in Wednesday night’s second-round finale for Japan at Tokyo Dome, it was just the latest eye-opener.
The blast sparked the host country to a five-run inning that eventually ended in an 8-3 victory over Israel and locked up the top spot in Pool E with a 3-0 record as the Samurai earned a fourth consecutive trip to the WBC’s championship round, this time in Los Angeles.
The Tsutsugo shot was Japan’s 10th of the tournament, tying the Samurai — undefeated in six WBC games — with Italy for the most longballs in the tourney.
“To be honest, I didn’t expect us to hit this many home runs [in the tournament],” Samurai Japan skipper Hiroki Kokubo said in the postgame press conference.
“Once we got into the actual games, I think the swings of the players — other countries included — got a lot better, and we were able to hit a lot of home runs that impacted games.”
The impression of Japan as the bunt-heavy team is starting to fade among opponents.
“We’re not surprised, we obviously know they’re really good,” Israel’s Sam Fuld said about the power display Japan has put on in this tournament.
“Traditionally, they maybe rely on more of a small-ball approach than maybe our culture relies on, but we’re all well aware there are plenty of guys in this league who have 20, 30 home runs, so we know they have plenty of power in this country as well,” said Fuld, who played for four big league teams from 2007 to 2015.
Sho Nakata’s three homers have him tied with Tsutsugo for the team lead, Tetsuto Yamada has two and Seiji Kobayashi and Nobuhiro Matsuda have one apiece to account for Japan’s double-digit homer total, and players like Seiya Suzuki and Hayato Sakamoto have yet to go deep.
“I think the guys are bigger and stronger. And I think that stereotype of small ball — that’s not what they’re about now,” said Phil Bradley, a former Yomiuri Giants player and current special assistant with the Major League Baseball Players Association.
“I always say the average size of the Japanese player is bigger, and therefore, they’re going to be stronger. And therefore, they’re going to play a different style of game.”
Kokubo, though, isn’t ready to ask his players to start swinging for the fences as Samurai Japan is certain to face powerhouse squads in the next round.
Said Kokubo: “I don’t think we’re going to win by trying to match their power. We have to play the Japanese style of baseball — we have to start by playing tight defense, pitching well, and that starts mainly with [catcher] Kobayashi helping us establish a rhythm, and then looking for our opportunities on offense.”
Japan takes on the Pool F runner-up on Tuesday night (Wednesday morning in Japan) in the semifinals in Los Angeles.
When asked about trying to win Japan’s third WBC title, Kokubo didn’t get caught up in the euphoria of being undefeated.
“Before we start thinking about the final, we have to first get through the semifinal. That goes for any tournament,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough go and if we lose that game, it’s all over. We have to get ready to try and win that game.”Speech