Astros outfielder Norichika Aoki was in the middle of everything in Japan's thrilling 8-6, extra-innings victory over the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic on Sunday at the Tokyo Dome.The veteran outfielder reached base four times, scored two runs, played stellar defense and likely would have won the game for
Astros outfielder Norichika Aoki was in the middle of everything in Japan's thrilling 8-6, extra-innings victory over the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic on Sunday at the Tokyo Dome.
The veteran outfielder reached base four times, scored two runs, played stellar defense and likely would have won the game for Japan in the 10th inning if instant-replay challenges were available.
Instead of being the hero, the 35-year-old outfielder displayed the all-around game that has made him Japan's leader.
:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::
"What I can do, every moment, I might realize that something is needed or [do something] according to the situation that presents [itself] at [a certain point in] the game," Aoki said earlier of his leadership role. "So whatever advice I can give to anybody, I intend to do so. But in this preparation method that we had, I think the team went through many unexpected situations. So we have to overcome them."
Japan and Aoki certainly did so Sunday.
Aoki, who joined the Astros in November, stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the top of the 10th. He hit a chopper to second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who flipped to shortstop Andrelton Simmons at second. Simmons made the turn and fired to first baseman Curt Smith, and first-base umpire Larry Vanover called Aoki out. Aoki immediately pointed to the bag, as did the first-base coach, claiming Simmons' throw pulled Smith off.
The call stood, as instant replay isn't being used until the Classic's final two rounds, except to review home runs. TV replays showed the throw did, in fact, pull Smith off the bag. If the play could have been overturned, Aoki would have driven in the go-ahead run.
Instead, as the game advanced to the 11th and the new rule placing runners on first and second was used for the first time, Aoki returned to first and scored on Sho Nakata's two-run, go-ahead single.
Aoki was also part of Japan's four-run third inning -- during which he singled and scored -- that helped the Japanese jump out to a 5-1 lead. The Netherlands countered with four runs of its own in the bottom of the inning, but the Dutch almost never got their chance to answer.
Immediately before Wladimir Balentien launched a two-out, two-run homer, Aoki settled under a fly ball off the bat of Xander Bogaerts with Simmons at third. Aoki timed it perfectly and threw a dart to home, but Simmons reached his left hand under the catcher's tag to score and avoid being the inning's final out.
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 Marlins Park, Tokyo Dome, Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Mexico, 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.
Cash Kruth is a reporter for MLB.com.