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Leading man: Yamada powers Japan's offense

March 14, 2017

TOKYO -- Tetsuto Yamada is a power hitter for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in Japan's Central League, with 38 home runs and 100-plus RBIs in each of the past two seasons. But on a Japan team in the World Baseball Classic full of cleanup hitters and short on leadoff men,

TOKYO -- Tetsuto Yamada is a power hitter for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in Japan's Central League, with 38 home runs and 100-plus RBIs in each of the past two seasons. But on a Japan team in the World Baseball Classic full of cleanup hitters and short on leadoff men, Yamada was pushed to the top of the order.
It wasn't going well for Yamada in the WBC 2017, but he turned things around Tuesday with two home runs and scored four times in Japan's key 8-5 win over Cuba on Tuesday. Now, with the Japanese team on the verge of qualifying for the semifinals for the fourth straight tournament, having Yamada atop the lineup is working.
Yamada was just 2-for-12 in Japan's three first-round games, and manager Hiroki Kokubo dropped Yamada to the seventh spot for the Japanese's opening second-round game against the Netherlands. A 1-for-5 night against the Dutch left Yamada batting .175 with a .235 on-base percentage in WBC 2017.
:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::
Everything changed Tuesday, and Kokubo and Yamada both said it changed in batting practice.
"I swung good [in BP]," Yamada said. "I felt [confident]. I could swing with my style, and I was very happy about it."
So was Kokubo, who went in after batting practice and told his coaching staff he thought it was Yamada's day. He wrote out a lineup card with Yamada back in the leadoff spot, and then he watched it work.
Yamada hit a leadoff home run off Cuba starter Bladimir Banos in the bottom of the first. Yamada doubled and scored in the third inning, walked and scored in the fifth and homered again after Seiichi Uchikawa gave Japan the lead with his eighth-inning sacrifice fly.
"I told [the coaches] he's going to hit tonight," Kokubo said. "And he just hit."

Japan won a second straight close game in Pool E, and with a 2-0 record through two games, the Japanese control the group. If Cuba defeats the Netherlands in a game that starts at 11 p.m. ET on Tuesday (noon local time Wednesday in Tokyo live on MLB Network and MLB.TV), Japan will qualify for the semifinals even before playing its final second-round game against Israel (6 a.m. ET Wednesday live on MLB Network and MLB.TV).
Even if Japan loses to Israel, the worst-case scenario now would be a tiebreaker game Thursday, for a chance to go to Dodger Stadium for next week's final round.
Either way, Yamada will no doubt get more chances as a leadoff man. Kokubo insisted the one-game drop to the seventh spot wasn't a result of Yamada's struggles but came from his desire to have more speed at the top against Netherlands starter Rick van den Hurk.
It hardly matters now. Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh, Kokubo's cleanup hitter, had three more hits Tuesday and is batting .368 with seven RBIs in five games. Kokubo's fifth-place hitter, Sho Nakata, has three home runs and eight RBIs.
And Yamada, finally, has settled into the leadoff spot.
The World Baseball Classic runs through March 22. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament is being distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games at Tokyo Dome, Petco Park, as well as the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.

Danny Knobler is a contributor to MLB.com.