The thirty-second Olympiad is well underway in Tokyo, which means NPB is on pause so that Japan can have a good shot at gold! Before we recap their games, we should address a departing veteran import player. Eighth-year Venezuelan Ernesto Mejia requested and was granted his release from the Saitama Seibu Lions, desiring to be home with his family. He was not the lone foreigner to make noise about Japan’s decision to forbid players’ families from entering the country, as Yokohama DeNA Baystars pitcher Kevin Shackelford tweeted his displeasure about the situation, even tagging Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Let’s hope this shakes things up a little.
And now… Olympic baseball action, particularly your undefeated Samurai Japan!
7/28: Japan vs. Dominican Republic. Starter Yoshinobu Yamamoto (Orix Buffaloes) pitched six shutout innings but was matched by DR starter Cristopher Mercedes (Yomiuri Giants). In the top of the seventh, the DR opened the scoring with three hits against Koyo Aoyagi (Hanshin Tigers) to plate two runs. Japan scored one in the bottom of the frame when Hideto Asamura (Rakuten Eagles) scored on a Munetaka Murakami (Yakult Swallows) grounder to first. The DR looked to break the game wide open in the top of the ninth, but the damage was kept to just one run, and they stranded two runners on the bases. In the bottom of the inning, Japan came alive. Back-to-back singles from Yuki Yanagita (SoftBank Hawks) and Kensuke Kondoh (Nippon-Ham Fighters) set the table for Murakami to bring one home on a double. Japan tied the game on a squeeze play (fielder’s choice, no out recorded), and then Hayato Sakamoto (Giants) hit the first pitch he saw deep to center, bringing the walk-off runner home! Final Score: Japan 4, Dominican Republic 3.
7/31: Japan vs. Mexico. Despite giving up the game’s first run in the bottom of the first, the Samurai quickly tied things up in the top of the next inning on a Takuya Kai (Hawks) RBI single up the middle. Japan took the lead in the third as Sakamoto scored on Asamura’s grounder, and in the fourth, Tetsuto Yamada clubbed a three-run to give Japan a commanding lead. Mexico got one back in the bottom of the inning. Japan would add single runs in the seventh (Sakamoto home run) and eighth (Yamada RBI single). Mexico replied with a two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth, but that was as close as they would get. Final Score: Japan 7, Mexico 4.
Round 1 (August 1): Israel defeated and ousted Mexico from the tournament with a convincing 12-5 win. In the battle of second-place teams, the Dominican Republic team once again blew a ninth-inning, 3-1 lead as South Korea walked this one off, winning 4-3 on a bases-loaded hit batter.
Round 2 (August 2): In what looked like a total mismatch, South Korea put the hurt on Israel, ending the game early with an 11-1 mercy-rule victory. In the night game between the USA and Japan, it was Samurai Japan who drew first blood in the bottom of the third. Masataka Yoshida hit a two-out RBI single, and with the bases loaded, Yuki Yanagita hit an RBI infield single to shortstop. America did not wait too long to strike back, though. Masahiro Tanaka (Eagles) was unable to get through the top of the fourth inning, giving up three runs and the lead. His mates tied the game in the bottom of the frame (Sakamoto RBI double), but America hit a three-run home run against Aoyagi the next inning for a commanding 6-3 lead. But Japan chipped away at it, scoring two in the bottom of the fifth (Seiya Suzuki home run, Kikuchi RBI infield single) and tied it up in the bottom of the ninth on a Yanagita RBI ground out to second. In extras, America was unable to plate anyone, setting up the walk-off win for Japan. Starting with runners on first and second, they predictably bunted the runners over, and then Takuya Kai (Hawks) hit the first pitch he saw to deep right. Final Score: Japan 7, USA 6.
Up next: On August 3, Israel and the Dominican Republic look to knock each other out of the tournament, and the winner will go on to face USA on August 4. That evening, Japan will play against South Korea. One final game (USA/Israel/DR winner vs. Japan/Korea loser) on August 5 will sort out who plays whom in the medal games, which are slated to take place on August 7 at noon (bronze) and 7:00 pm (gold). Can’t wait!