Japan cruises to perfect Pool B record; Australia controls own fate
TOKYO -- Yoshinobu Yamamoto has won back-to-back Sawamura Awards – the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young. Most fans in Japan assume a trip to the Majors awaits in his future. He wears No. 18, the number usually reserved for the staff ace in Japan.
And yet, on this incredibly deep, extremely dominant, seemingly unstoppable Japan roster, he’s the No. 4 starter -- getting the start in Team Japan’s 7-1 victory over Australia on Sunday night.
Yes, that’s just how loaded Team Japan is.
The game -- with the winner of Pool B on the line -- was over almost before it began. Shohei Ohtani got the scoring started with an absolute moonshot to right field that nearly smacked his own billboard square in the face to drive in three. Lars Nootbaar and Kensuke Kendoh added RBIs in the second inning and Japan didn’t look back. It was the fourth consecutive game in which Japan’s bats made plenty of noise, as it finished the first round by defeating its opponents by a combined score of 35-8. (If there’s some consolation for Australia, it’s this: It held Japan to its fewest runs in the first round.)
"Yeah, I think the turning point was when Ohtani hit that ball about 500 feet in the first inning," Australia manager Dave Nilsson joked. "To be able to compete with Team Japan, you have to keep them scoreless the first few innings and you have to work deep into the game. Any time they get a lead early in the game, they are going to be very tough to chase down. That was the case tonight."
With Japan holding a commanding lead, Yamamoto got to work. He struck out eight batters over four innings and allowed only one base hit. It was the kind of performance the 40,000 screaming, chanting, singing fans seemingly willed into existence from the 24-year-old.
"We wanted to score first. And scoring runs for the first is so big and that made Yamamoto feel more relaxed," Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama said.
Even though the young starter dominated on the scoresheet, there are still things he wishes he did better -- some of which comes from sessions breaking down his performance with his mentor and fellow team Japan starter, Yu Darvish.
"I thought was my command was not what I was expecting, and I threw more pitches a than I expected," Yamamoto said. "I'd like to minimize my pitch count. After the previous games, I spoke with Yu Darvish about my high pitch counts. I think I've got a good combination of the high fastball and low fastball, so I thank Yu Darvish for his advice a lot."
With a perfect 4-0 run through the first round, Japan will now wait to see which team from Pool A it will play on March 16. The winner of that game will advance to the semifinals in Miami.
Australia’s game against the Czech Republic now takes on increased importance on Monday. The team still controls its own destiny -- a win and it advances to the second-round for its first time in World Baseball Classic history. However, a loss and they would be tied with the Czech Republic. Should Korea defeat China, as well, the tiebreaker rules would then be in effect to determine which country advances and which nations must wait for 2026.
"When the schedule came out last November, we had a pretty strong idea the game against Czech tomorrow is going to being an important game," Nilsson said. "We are really well prepared for tomorrow. We are all very excited and we cannot wait for it to come."