Ohtani, Darvish work in tandem to send Japan to semis

March 16th, 2023

TOKYO -- Thirteen years. It had been 13 years and 242 Major League starts since the last time was called out of the bullpen. The last time it happened, the right-hander was a 23-year-old stud for the Nippon-Ham Fighters who dreamt of pitching in the Major Leagues.

Facing Italy in the quarterfinals on Thursday night, with a win sending the team to Miami and a spot in the semis, manager Hideki Kuriyama turned to Team Japan’s star veteran -- who has become a mentor to the young pitchers around him -- in a 9-3 victory.

"[Darvish] joined from the beginning on Day 1, he is the guy that always [puts himself first] for the team ... he always does things for the future, not the present," said Kuriyama when asked about Darvish being a mentor to pitchers such as Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who's won the Sawamura Award -- Japan's highest pitching honor -- twice.

Even though Japan held a five-run lead in the seventh inning when the Padres starter entered, Kuriyama wasn’t taking any chances. Must-win games can fall apart in a hurry if you give your opposition even the slightest opening, and Japan was taking no chances.

"There's a large gap, like a 9-3 score, but no matter who pitched to Team Italy, they almost never swing and miss," Kuriyama said. "They swing really hard. ... It was a tough game from the beginning. Like I mentioned yesterday or the day before, this game was an all-in game."

Darvish quickly struck out the first batter he faced on his way to retiring Italy in order. He gave up a home run to Dominic Fletcher in the eighth, but he was otherwise spotless in his two frames. Pairing him with (4 2/3 innings, two runs, one walk, five strikeouts; 1-for-2 with two runs as a hitter) is the kind of unfair advantage that makes you wonder if Japan will drop a game in the World Baseball Classic.

"You need momentum to come back from a deficit like that," Italy manager Mike Piazza said. "You need two or three hits, a walk and then maybe a big hit and ... that's what you need. But again, that's putting ourselves in a hole which is difficult. ... It's just a very difficult task to come back like that."

Darvish and Ohtani may get the headlines in the win, but it was Team Japan’s most overlooked player who did the biggest damage. On a loaded roster featuring players like Ohtani, Lars Nootbaar, new Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida and the record-setting Munetaka Murakami, it’s been easy to forget that Kazuma Okamoto is a two-time All-Star with five consecutive seasons of 30-plus home runs.

Playing in front of his usual hometown crowd, the Yomiuri Giants slugger smashed a three-run home run in the bottom of the third and added a two-run double in the fifth to help put Italy away.

"We knew this was probably going to be the toughest game of the tournament," Piazza said. "We felt like if we would have won this game we probably would have a good shot of winning the whole tournament because of the difficulty of this game, but it is what it is and we wish Japan well in Miami, my hometown, so I hope they have a good series."

Japan will now play the winner of the Puerto Rico-Mexico game in Miami on Monday (7 p.m. ET, FS1) and eagerly awaits its matchup.

"This Team Japan, there's a bunch of younger players, and probably most of them are eager to advance to the semifinals so that they have the opportunity to play against real Major Leaguers," said Kuriyama.

For Italy, its tournament may be over, but this team of mustaches, espresso and big victories has made its mark on the World Baseball Classic. Piazza will now look ahead to this fall’s European Championships in the Czech Republic and wait for the 2026 World Baseball Classic.

"We didn't do this just to play the tournament and come out here to have a good time and travel a little bit," Piazza said. "This is a movement we want to try to encourage to grow the game worldwide.

"There's a purpose to this. It's not just a one-off thing for us. We want to keep this momentum going ... we had some good games with the Dutch. Obviously, the Czech Republic did well here, and I think we want to make Europe a good market for baseball, and it's a good start."